If the debt-limit debate had anything to do with reality, every story about it would include a few basic facts. Starting with: President Obama inherited a $1.2 trillion budget deficit. And: Republican leaders supported the tax cuts and wars that (along with the recession, another pre-Obama phenomenon) created that deficit. Also: Republicans engineered this crisis by attaching unprecedented ideological demands to a routine measure allowing the U.S. to pay its bills. Finally, Obama and the Democrats keep meeting those demands—for spending cuts, then for more spending cuts, and even for nothing but spending cuts—but Republicans keep holding out for more.
These are verifiable facts, not opinions. But since they aren’t new facts, and re-reporting them would make “GOP claims” about the crisis look, um, non-factual, they’re rarely mentioned, except as “Democratic claims.” This is a real problem for journalism in an era where—now this is an opinion—one of the major parties has abandoned its grip on reality. I understand why objective reporters aren’t encouraged to contradict political lies with historical truths, but this hostage drama is one of the prices of our era of amnesia.
Look, staying in opinion-land, I think this particular hostage drama could conceivably drive budget policy in a good direction. I’d love to see big cuts in spending on agriculture, housing and the military. We do need to restrain long-term Medicare and Medicaid costs, although there are better and worse ways to do that. There’s still a chance to eliminate ludicrous tax breaks for ethanol producers, private jet owners and hedge fund managers, maybe paired with an economy-boosting payroll tax cut to help Republicans honor their no-new-taxes pledges.
In other words, it’s at least possible that this crisis the Republicans created could have a beneficial effect. It’s also possible that this crisis the Republicans created could cripple the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, plunge the economy back into recession, and increase borrowing costs for just about everyone. But whatever happens, Republicans created this crisis. They blew up the debt. They refused to raise the debt ceiling without conditions. And because of their internal divisions, they can’t even decide what those conditions should be. They initially demanded a breakdown of 85% spending cuts and 15% revenue increases, before deciding the deal had to be 100% spending cuts. Some initially praised the bipartisan Gang of Six plan—until Obama endorsed it. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a proposal for 100% spending cuts, all of which Republicans had already endorsed –until, of course, Reid proposed them.
I’ve made some of these points before. More than once, I suppose. But they seem quite relevant to the back-and-forth over the debt ceiling, which goes on every day even though those points don’t get repeated every day.
I remember back when I was at The Washington Post, a guy named Matt Miller (unsuccessfully) pitched my boss about running a daily front-page feature called “Still True Today,” to inform readers about important facts that didn’t happen to be newsworthy that day. Miller’s plan wouldn’t really address the problem of a major political party creating its own fact-free reality. And I don’t know how many minds would be changed by constant reminders that President Clinton left behind a substantial surplus, that President Bush vaporized it into a gigantic deficit, that President Obama’s health care reforms will actually reduce the deficit.
But it does seem to be worth pointing out that those facts are still true today. Not that they seem to matter.