Looked at one way, it shouldn’t be hard. Both parties in Washington have every reason to want to prove they possess the baseline political competence to meet the government’s central and pending crisis, which is the spending crisis. Both parties should be eager to reach a debt ceiling agreement, if only to prove the system isn’t broken. Because really, they are the system. If it’s broken, they’re broken, and if they’re broken, who needs them?
So you’d think the hangman’s noose would have concentrated their minds. Instead, of course, it’s a battle. As this is written, the president seems to have the edge. But if he wins—whatever winning looks like—he’ll likely pay a price for his political victory. He usually does. He won on health care, which ruined his first two years in office and sharply accelerated the decline in his popularity.
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The issues of spending and taxes should be decoupled. The spending crisis is what’s going on and demands attention now; it’s because of out-of-control spending that we are up against the debt ceiling. Taxes—whether to raise them on the wealthy, whether to reform the tax code and how—can’t be satisfyingly dealt with in the next few weeks. It is gameful of the White House to obscure the central crisis by focusing on a secondary one. The American people have very interesting thoughts and views on taxes, and in no way is it certain that this issue will always favor the Republicans. There’s an election in 2012, we can argue it through from now to then.
A central problem for Republicans is that they’re trying to do everything—cut spending, fight off tax increases, win national support—from the House. The House is probably not enough to win a fight like this. In the words of a conservative strategist, Republicans have one bullet and the Democrats have three: the presidency, the Senate, and a mainstream media generally willing to accept the idea that the president is the moderate in the fight.
The president is in the better position, and he knows it. Majority Leader Eric Cantor reports Mr. Obama went into enough-is-enough mode during White House talks this week, warned Mr. Cantor not to call his bluff, and ended the meeting saying: “Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting here?” I’m glad Reagan is his model for how presidents should comport themselves, but he should know Reagan never tried to scare people into doing things his way. Instead he tried to encourage support, and with a light touch. When locked in battle with a Democratic Congress he didn’t go on TV and make threats. He didn’t say, “Congress needs to know we must rebuild our defense system, and if they don’t, your children will die in a fiery hail of Soviet bullets.”
That was—how to put it?—not his style. It’s not any president’s style. But it’s what Mr. Obama was doing when he told CBS’s Scott Pelley that he isn’t sure there will be “money in the coffers” to send out Social Security checks. Soon he may be saying there won’t be money in the coffers to let students return to college or to pay servicemen. The president is playing Targeted Catastrophe. He’s attempting to agitate and frighten people into calling their congressmen and saying Don’t Cut Anything, Raise Taxes on Millionaires.
Three weeks of Targeted Catastrophe could be pretty effective. But if the president wins this way, there will be residual costs. He will have scared America and shook it up, all for a political victory. That will not add to affection or regard for the president. Centrists and independents, however they react in terms of support, will not think more highly of him.
Which gets me, briefly, to the latest poll on whether Americans think we’re on the right track or wrong track as a nation. The wrong-track number hit 63% this month, up from 60% last month, according to Reuters/Ipsos, which laid the increase to pessimism about the economy and “prolonged gridlock in Washington.”
Fair enough. But there’s more to be said about the nation the president seems to be busy agitating. It’s always assumed the right track/wrong track numbers are about the economy, which makes sense because economic facts are always in the forefronts of everyone’s minds. Will I get laid off, can I pay the bills, can my business survive?
But there are other reasons for American unease, and in a way some are deeper and more pervasive. Some are cultural. Here are only two. Pretty much everyone over 50 in America feels on some level like a refugee. That’s because they were born in one place—the old America—and live now in another. We’re like immigrants, whether we literally are or not. One of the reasons America has always celebrated immigrants is a natural, shared knowledge that they left behind everything they knew to enter a place that was different—different language, different ways and manners, different food and habits, different tempo. This took courage. They missed the old country. There’s a line in a Bernard Shaw play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”: “I kept myself lonely for you!” That is the unspoken sentence of all immigrants toward their children—I made myself long for an old world so you could have a better one.
But everyone over 50 in America feels a certain cultural longing now. They hear the new culture out of the radio, the TV, the billboard, the movie, the talk show. It is so violent, so sexualized, so politicized, so rough. They miss the old America they were born into, 50 to 70 years ago. And they fear, deep down, that this new culture, the one their children live in, isn’t going to make it. Because it is, in essence, an assaultive culture, from the pop music coming out of the rental car radio to the TSA agent with her hands on your kids’ buttocks. We are increasingly strangers here, and we fear for the future. There are, by the way, 100 million Americans over 50. A third of the nation. That’s a lot of displaced people. They are part of the wrong-track numbers.
So is this. In the Old America there were a lot of bad parents. There always are, because being a parent is hard, and not everyone has the ability or even the desire. But in the old America you knew it wasn’t so bad, because the culture could bring the kids up. Inadequate parents could sort of say, “Go outside and play in the culture,” and the culture—relatively innocent, and boring—could be more or less trusted to bring the kids up. Popular songs, the messages in movies—all of it was pretty hopeful, and, to use a corny old word, wholesome. Grown-ups now know you can’t send the kids out to play in the culture, because the culture will leave them distorted and disturbed. And there isn’t less bad parenting now than there used to be. There may be more.
There is so much unease and yearning and sadness in America. So much good, too, so much energy and genius. But it isn’t a country anyone should be playing games with, and adding to the general sense of loss.