The tragic damage

    Have you ever seen Louis C. K. or Ricky Gervais in action? Those guys are funny, but they’re not nearly as comedic as the Republicans who are currently crowing about what they call “the Obama downgrade.” Seriously, they should all take a course in remedial reading.As you surely know, the Standard & Poor’s rating agency announced on Friday night that it had downgraded America’s creditworthiness from AAA to AA+, thus taking us down a notch for the first time ever. I generally believe that laughter can be a tonic during tough times, so I am grateful to the tea-partying GOP for predictably asserting that the embarrassment is all Obama’s fault – when, in fact, S&P specifically cited, as one of its chief rationales, the toxic brinksmanship practiced by the tea-partying GOP.Granted, S&P is not exactly the ideal arbiter of our economic and civic life; after all, it was willfully or negligently oblivious (take your pick) during the sub-prime mortgage scandal. Nevertheless, the ratings agency is now observing our current insanity with its eyes wide open. The credit downgrade is essentially a vote of no confidence in our political process – as it played out during the ginned-up debt ceiling crisis, and as it is likely to play out in the foreseeable future with further acts of Republican intransigence.I’m hardly alone in detailing the contents of the report, particularly this key passage: “The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policy-making becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”It doesn’t take a genius to decode that passage. The debt ceiling had been raised in bipartisan fashion 78 times since 1960, under presidents of both parties. The ceiling and the threat of default had never been “political bargaining chips,” they had never been targets of opportunity for “political brinksmanship,” they had never been grist for making governance “less stable” – until now. And we all know, as do the folks at S&P, which party is the prime culprit.Last December, when asked by a reporter whether the Republicans might force a fight over raising the debt ceiling in an attempt to gain “a significant amount of leverage over the White House,” the perpetually naive president of the United States confidently replied that “nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse.” Obama also declared, “I’ll take John Boehner at his word” that such a thing would never happen. Yet one month later, at a private session with the House Republican newbies, Boehner’s number two, Eric Cantor, reportedly hatched the plot. He told the freshmen: “I’m asking you to look at a potential increase n the debt limit as a leverage moment.”The S&P report clearly references this GOP leverage moment, but there is much more. It also deplores the fundamental deficiencies of the GOP-leveraged debt ceiling deal. Republicans have naturally seized on the S&P passage which faults Congress for not having sufficiently tackled entitlement programs, but the broader indictment is aimed squarely at the extremist Republican refusal to trim the deficit by raising some new revenue. Just like most of the American people (more on that shortly), the S&P gang believes that no real progress can be made unless new revenues are put into the mix.As the report stated, with obvious disappointment, “it appears that, for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options…(The deal) contains no measures to raise taxes or otherwise enhance revenues.” Indeed, S&P had originally anticipated, as part of its “base case scenario,” that the Bush tax cuts for the rich would be allowed to expire at the end of 2012 – and it might even be inspired to restore America’s top credit rating if that expiration was to occur on schedule “as the Administration is advocating.” But, alas, it has no confidence that such a thing will happen.Why not? Because S&P believes that the Republicans will protect their rich friends by blocking the expiration. The money quote: “We have changed our (fiscal projections) because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the (deal).” Hence the credit downgrade, a thumbs-down verdict on a deal that was virtually tailored to Republican specifications; as Boehner himself boasted last week, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.” Such is the tragic damage wrought by ideologues – at a time when most Americans deplore the ideologues. According to the latest New York Times-CBS News poll, 85 percent want both parties to compromise “in order to get things done”; 63 percent want the rich to pay higher taxes; 62 percent believe that job creation is a higher priority than spending cuts; 47 percent blame Republicans in Congress for the rocky debt deal negotiations (29 percent blame Obama and the Democrats); only 20 percent view the tea party favorably; and, most tellingly, a 43 percent plurality now believes that the tea party exerts too much influence over the GOP (that’s triple the percentage recorded in February 2010).So when John Kerry suggested on Meet the Press yesterday that the S&P decision was a “tea party downgrade,” he was actually understating the problem. As the report itself made clear, this was a downgrade driven primarily by the Republicans, who are the tea party’s true hostages.One commentator at the venerable Economist magazine, having duly noted the Republican intransigence, is nevertheless suggesting that the S&P report, coupled with the polls, may well “force Congress to acknowledge the idiocy of their recent behavior, and to adapt by substituting compromise for brinkmanship.” Gee. What are the odds of us experiencing that giddy moment any time soon? That’s a laugh line worthy of Louis C. K.

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