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Demonization and the Debt Ceiling Stalemate

Demonization and the Debt Ceiling Stalemate

By Mark Salter - July 29, 2011

In an interview on Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Democratic National Committee, proved again (although additional proof wasn't necessary) that she can demonize opponents with the worst of them.

"Almost like dictatorship," she blared in response to House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy's use of a clip from the movie "The Town," shown to encourage his caucus to stand together in the debt ceiling showdown. "They start the day with trying to incite their caucus with, essentially, violent movie clips -- pushing their people to inflict pain and hurt people."

Using a scene from a movie about Boston bank robbers might be a puerile tactic of persuasion (it brought to mind Georgetown University basketball games where a clip from the movie "Braveheart" is used not to "incite" violence but louder cheering, occasions when I feel excused from adult behavior). And I disagree with Republicans whose Tea Party enthusiasms have squandered a decent chance for a grand bargain of entitlement reform, deep spending cuts and a reasonable net increase in revenues achieved through a pro-growth reform of the tax code (see my previous column for RCP).

I'm not wild either about House Speaker John Boehner's proposal to cut less than $1 trillion in federal spending over 10 years and play another game of debt ceiling chicken next year, although it's a better alternative than whatever would come out of the disorder of debt default. But I'm pretty sure that neither McCarthy nor anyone in the Republican leadership -- including the most adamant "cut, cap and balance" advocates -- is motivated by the desire to "hurt people."

Wasserman Schultz's charge is a calumny, but such a silly one that it's hard to get too worked up about it. I suspect her attempts at inflammatory rhetoric generally have little effect on most Republicans, save Rep. Allen West, another member of the colorful Florida delegation, who appears to have been genuinely injured by the DNC chair's risible assaults on the character and purposes of Republicans. In this instance, her inanity is apparent in her assertion that Republican leaders are trying to impose a dictatorship when it is disunity that is the problem with and for Republicans.

In the House, the staff of the Republican Study Committee has been emailing conservative groups, encouraging their opposition to Boehner's plan. In the Senate, a rump Republican caucus of Sens. Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and David Vitter, whose common attributes appear to be self-indulgence and irresponsibility, are threatening to hold up any debt ceiling deal until Congress passes a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which doesn't have and will likely never have the votes to pass. As my former boss Sen. John McCain observed this week, that position is "worse than foolish. That's deceiving ... our constituents."

That deceit is also the work of supposedly serious fiscal conservatives at the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, who support this insistence on an unattainable goal, and thus the proposition that it's better that the nation default on its obligations than Republicans survive to fight another day, having not attained it.

Fanning the flames of counterproductive militancy is not what one expects from groups who claim to provide intellectual support to conservative reformers. If that were the case, Mssrs. DeMint, Lee, Paul, Vitter and other high-minded stalwarts of the "let justice be done though the heavens fall" crowd (like defeated Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, without whose incompetent campaign and endorsements from self-appointed Tea Party leaders like DeMint there wouldn't be a Harry Reid plan to oppose -- because there probably wouldn't be a Harry Reid in the Senate) would be the intellectual giants of the party, which they self-evidently are not.

The economic consequences of refusing to raise the debt ceiling because you can't have what you don't have the votes for would be catastrophic. It would "inflict pain," even if that were not the intention of those who caused it, lots of pain, to the American economy (and the global economy as well). No doubt such a scenario, if it comes to pass, will be short-lived, as interests rates soar, credit dries up, unemployment spikes, and even the Jim DeMints of the party will quickly find a way to climb down off the ramparts and pass a debt ceiling increase, even if it were accompanied by only token spending reductions. Followship, not dictatorship, would find many new adherents in the Republican caucuses.

But the political damage will be harder to repair than the economic damage. If we go through the chaos of default, I'm pretty certain it will ensure President Obama's re-election, and cost Republicans their House majority -- and any chance of electing a Senate majority as well. A lot of Republicans won't be re-elected, and will leave public office without having done anything serious to reduce the growth of government, the issue that motivated their entry into public life.

So worry not, Debbie, Republicans aren't threatening to impose a dictatorship. They're threatening to fall apart. All you need to do is let them.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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