The Tea Party threatens to spark an economic crisis to get its way
It’s been nearly 50 years since then-Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater made the following enormously controversial and, ultimately, politically-fatal statement during the speech in which he accepted his party’s presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention:
“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
At the time (and for many years thereafter) Goldwater’s statement was roundly viewed in most polite political circles as capturing the essence of a wild-eyed and nearly-unhinged ideologue – a fanatic who spoke for the paranoid John Birchers of the world and who would happily nuke American adversaries and shred much of the modern social contract.
The amazing thing about all of this, of course, is that by comparison to the leaders of the modern American far right – the Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls and Grover Norquists of the world – Goldwater now looks like a pussycat on many issues. After all, Goldwater was a staunch opponent of the religious right and a defender of reproductive freedom and gay rights. He told Nixon he had to resign and defended Gerald Ford from Ronald Reagan’s insurgency in 1976. He even said this:
“Mark my words, if and when these preachers get a hold of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise.” (Emphasis supplied.)
The point of all this, of course, is not to rehabilitate Goldwater in any way; on many important issues, he really was a far right – even dangerously far right – ideologue. The point is to illustrate how much further right the modern conservative movement has shifted.
Today, the Speaker of the U.S. House can’t even utter the word “compromise.” Meanwhile, militants in his caucus are, like modern day anarchists, preparing to threaten a government shut-down (and maybe even a global economic meltdown) unless the President and Democrats agree to repeal a duly enacted, Supreme Court-approved federal law – a law that will improve the lives of millions of people.
At times, it feels like the only thing missing from the Tea Party insurrection in Congress is a video emailed from an undisclosed location in which the militants brandish actual weapons or perhaps real, live hostages. Can you imagine if Congressional Democrats had threatened a global economic crisis to stop the impeachment of Bill Clinton or perhaps the enactment of the Bush tax cuts?
Where things stand
As you read this column, the U.S. government is without a spending law for the new fiscal year that began at 12:00 this morning. The reason for this is the refusal of congressional conservatives to pass such a law unless it included a provision repealing the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) or, at the least, delaying implementation for one year.
And make no mistake: delaying the implementation of health care reform would be a giant disaster. As experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported yesterday:
“The delay would adversely affect millions of Americans. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that such a delay would cause 11 million more Americans to remain uninsured in 2014 and result in higher premiums for many others. It also would disrupt the new health insurance exchanges just as the open enrollment season is about to begin.
Specifically, a one-year delay of the individual mandate would reduce the expected coverage gains under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by nearly 85 percent, relative to current law, according to a recent CBO estimate. Delaying the individual mandate also would raise premiums for health insurance purchased in the individual market in 2014, CBO finds.”
And so, as a result of this remarkable and patently unacceptable demand, hundreds of thousands of important public servants are now on furlough – from food inspectors to homeland security trainers to the vast majority of Environmental Protection Agency employees — and millions of Americans are not receiving the public services that they have paid for. Soon, Social Security beneficiaries will stop receiving their checks, national parks will close, many military operations will cease and many essential safety net programs that aid the nation’s most vulnerable citizens – many of them children – will stop. Moreover, billions of dollars that would ordinarily flow into the economy will not – thus risking a new economic slowdown.
It is an absurd situation reminiscent of a spoiled child’s tantrum or the demands of a hijacker. And it may only be a warm-up act.
Bad as the shut-down is, an even more daunting and potentially disastrous deadline looms in the coming weeks – namely, the date on which the federal debt ceiling must be extended so that the government can keep paying its bills.
If congressional conservatives adhere to their game of fiscal chicken when this deadline arrives (something they have repeatedly threatened to do in order to secure a new round of deep spending cuts), the results could be truly catastrophic: a default by the U.S. government. This, in turn, would almost certainly precipitate a global financial crisis.
As N.C. Budget and Tax Center expert Allan Freyer noted in a recent memo:
“Nothing less than the future of the global economy rests on the decision to raise the federal debt ceiling. At the same time, the rationale for deep spending cuts has greatly diminished. The short-term federal budget deficit is now more than half what it was in 2009, rendering additional deep spending cuts both unnecessary and economically counterproductive, as seen in sequestration’s negative consequences.”
Dealing with the hostage takers
So, what to do? What should President Obama, sane members of congress and concerned citizens think, say and do in response to this exercise in Tea Party anarchy?
Surely, the answer is to fight back and play hardball.
The Affordable Care Act itself is already a law that is hamstrung in many ways by dozens of compromises with powerful corporate and conservative interests. To compromise yet again under the threats of political hostage taking would only further limit its impact and encourage even more political anarchy.
Back in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (and even moderate Republicans) did not hesitate to make clear to the American people just how extreme Barry Goldwater – a man who had voted against a nuclear test ban treaty and talked openly of the tactical use of nuclear weapons – was.
Now is the time to do something similar. The time for sober and wonky debate over data and statistics is over. Now is the time to forcefully brand the groups and individuals playing roulette with the global economy and our national wellbeing for what they are: modern day anarchists who would sacrifice the nation’s wellbeing on the altar of an ideology so far to the right that it is in uncharted territory.
These people may mean well in their own wacky way. But they are badly misguided and flat out wrong. The sooner the President and his supporters make this case in the plainest terms possible, the better.