South Boston News & Record
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SoVaNow.com / October 09, 2013In the sage words of Sherlock Holmes, once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Yet in these strange times, how exactly does one tell the highly improbable from the utterly impossible?
We may soon get our answer: the government shutdown, previously thought to be a proposition so crazy that not even a Tea Party Republican would attempt it, is now in its second week, with more mayhem certain to follow. Just to be clear, pretty much everyone not on the Koch brothers’ payroll thinks the current mess is nuts enough. As U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in the lead-up to the budget impasse, the idea of shutting down the government — over Obamacare, the GOP’s rationale at the time — is “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Yet there’s a decent chance the shutdown, improbable as it may seem, is just the warm-up for a political crisis so economically destructive as to once be considered unthinkable: a default on America’s debt.
Sometime around the end of next week, so say Treasury officials, the United States will need to increase the debt limit to make good on its fiscal obligations. Raising the debt ceiling requires an act of Congress, which in case the point has been lost on anyone, isn’t exactly the most functional group around.
A debt limit vote could hardly be more perfectly designed to inflame the passions of the Tea Party and its adherent-agonists within the Republican ranks — a group that collectively has shown itself to be impervious to reason and, not coincidentally, wrong on just about everything.
So the stage is set for a showdown on top of the shutdown: an epic vote by Congress, sooner rather than later, on whether America should be declared a deadbeat nation. (This has nothing to do with the country’s actual ability to service its debts, by the way. Anyone who says the country is broke and cannot afford to raise the ceiling is either an ideologue or an economic illiterate or, more than likely, both.) Because Congress is already tied up in knots over the budget, fear is rising that the debt ceiling increase could founder at a time when confusion and insanity already hold sway over Capitol Hill. The impossible suddenly has become quite plausible.
It’s not an idle concern. Human history is rife with examples of men blundering into conflicts that produced unimaginable consequences for the future. World War I is a good example: a mix of paranoia, miscommunication and aggression led to ruin among nations. It all might never have happened if not for a collection of world leaders who seemed unable to grasp the downsides of warfare. And today? America’s future could well hinge on the choices of House Speaker John Boehner. What could possibly go wrong?
Boehner was all over boob tube this weekend, insisting there’s no way that Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling without concessions by the White House on unspecified entitlement spending and tax reforms. (Somewhat surprisingly, Boehner made no mention of defunding Obamacare. After a week of the GOP standing athwart on health care reform, so much for all that.) It’s conceivable the Speaker felt he had to make a big show of publicly standing firm on Tea Party demands after betraying a degree of squishiness late last week: numerous reports suggested Boehner was prepared to enlist Democratic support for “clean” debt ceiling hike (i.e., with no conditions attached) if his own caucus is unable to muster a majority in the House.
Boehner’s apparent reversal on the Sunday morning talk shows sounds like fodder for a sci-fi novel, or a cheesy TV crime series. Did someone kidnap the real John Boehner and dispatch his double for an appearance on ABC’s This Week? Is the speaker auditioning for a movie adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Zombie Boehner? Who knows?
There would seem to be only two real possibilities here. One, Boehner and the pretend-crazies in the House (a.k.a. Republican Party “moderates”) truly are prepared to cave on the budget, the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, all at once, with the only mystery being how they intend to orchestrate the GOP caucus’ utter defeat yet save their skins in the process. The other possibility is that the Crazy Train is barreling down the tracks with no one at the controls. If the latter chance follows its logical conclusion and leads to a national default, the result would be complete disaster not only for the party’s electoral prospects, but for the economy as a whole. Would Republicans really blow up the world to make a point? Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about the business of money, had this to say about the GOP’s debt ceiling gamesmanship: “It should be like nuclear bombs, basically too horrible to use.”
So: totally-batwing-crazy versus garden-variety-nuts — which approach will Republicans internalize and embrace? The party already is getting (rightly) hammered in the court of public opinion for its intransigence on the government shutdown. (Anyone who doubts this should call up Ken Cuccinelli, the Tea Party hero who finds himself badly lagging in the race for Virginia governor in two public opinion polls released separately this week). By contrast, a national default, last ventured by America in a non-technical way in 1779, would permanently doom the party to pariah status. Surely the GOP can’t be too keen on carving out a place in history as a political suicide cult. So yeah, the shutdown: it’s improbably stupid, but there you are. Default: Well nigh impossible.
Either way, the Republicans have dug a mighty deep pit for themselves. As Sherlock Holmes might say in predicting the inevitable GOP fold: Elementary, Dear Watson.
And yet: What would the world’s greatest mind make of the likes of Ted Yoho, a Tea Party congressman from Florida? Consider what Yoho had to say on the debt ceiling fight: “I think we need to have that moment where we realize [we’re] going broke.” By not raising the debt ceiling, he continued, “I think, personally, it would bring stability to the world markets” — the result, Yoho explained, of the United States projecting seriousness on the debt issue.
With bozos like Yoho to match wits against, Sherlock Holmes no doubt would have rushed, sobbing and screaming, into the arms of Dr. Moriarty.