Blasts from the past

    The problem with zealots is that they typically become hostage to their own delusions. And so the tea-partying conservatives continue to insist that if the U.S. government exceeds its borrowing authority on Aug. 2 – if, for the first time in history, the government can no longer pay its bills because it lacks the cash to cover expenses – then such a thing would not be a big deal at all.As tea-party freshman congressman Austin Scott remarked yesterday, “In the end, the sun would come up.” Dozens of his true-believing House brethren have vowed to oppose any raising of the debt ceiling – no matter what, and certainly not as part of a deal that would raise any taxes. Michele Bachmann has put up a campaign ad trumpeting her ideological intransigence. Republican party chairman Reince Priebus insists that all the talk of an impending crisis is hooey, because (in his apparent capacity as a fiscal expert) “we have enough revenues to pay our soldiers and we have enough revenues to pay our seniors and we have enough revenue to cover our – our – the debt payments that we owe for our bonds.”But perhaps these crisis deniers might be swayed to the side of reason, if only they would heed this presidential plea:”The full consequences of a default — or even the serious prospect of default — by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the costs, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to one conclusion,” that the debt ceiling must be raised.Yeah, I know. There’s no way they would ever listen to any admonition from Barack Obama…but, wait, hang on a second…My, my, my, what do we have here:The aforementioned plea was not Obama’s. It was authored in writing on Nov. 16, 1983 by that secular saint of the conservative movement, President Ronald Reagan.At the time, the U.S. was at risk of exceeding its borrowing authority, so Reagan, recognizing the crisis at hand, sent a letter to Senate Republican leader Howard Baker, pleading for a vote to raise the debt ceiling. Reagan had this crazy idea that there were times when the little kids on Capitol Hill needed to put aside their rhetorical toys and negotiate like grown-ups. And if keeping the national debt under control required a blend of spending cuts and tax increases, then he was fine with that reality. Repeatedly so.Which is one reason why Reagan – the man, not the myth – agreed to raise taxes virtually every year he was in office. As former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson remarked a few months ago, “Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times in his administration. I was here. I was here. I knew him. He was a dear friend and a total realist as to politics.”The problem is, realism has no place in the zealot gene pool. Tea partyers constantly invoke Reagan as their true north, but the truth is, they don’t know anything about him. They’re clueless about his long history of compromises. Back in the ’80s, when business groups fretted about hitting the debt ceiling, Reagan acted. Yesterday, when major organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable pleaded publicly for a bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling, the zealots continued to fiddle while the crisis burned.They did, however, take the opportunity to seethe at Obama. In a CBS News interview, the president said he couldn’t “guarantee” that Social Security checks would go out on time in early August, in the event of a debt ceiling breach. Indeed, said Obama, “this is not just a matter of Social Security checks. These are veterans’ checks,” as well. In response yesterday, one tea-party freshman congressman derided Obama’s remark as “sad and pathetic,” the vanquished John McCain called it “demagoguery,” and other conservatives fumed that Obama was despicably exploiting seniors and veterans for naked partisan gain.Just check out the presidential rhetoric: “This (congressional) brinksmanship threatens the holders of government bonds – and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits.”But hang on a second…nope, that wasn’t Obama. Yet again, that was Ronald Reagan.That quote is drawn from a 1987 radio address. Reagan was pleading anew for another hike in the debt ceiling, and, as you can see, he warned that the failure to raise the government’s borrowing authority would imperil timely payments to seniors and veterans. (Gee, I wonder: Did the young John McCain denounce Reagan for “demagoguery?”)It would be nice if the tea partyers woke up and hewed to the values of the icon they profess to worship. More likely, however, if Ronald Reagan was president today and practicing his brand of realism, they would likely run him out of town on a rail. Yes, even Reagan was way too liberal for this intransigent crowd – heck, even Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is apparently too liberal for this crowd, since he now insists that, as part of a debt-ceiling deal, “Republicans need to accept the need to raise more revenue” – and, all too tragically, we as a nation are now reaping the whirlwind. As Republican Alan Simpson, the Reagan stalwart, told ABC News yesterday, “The stuff that’s going on in my party, where the pettiness overcomes the patriotism, it’s just disgusting to me.”

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