The tone of the past month of debt negotiations has hardly been Washington’s finest hour. In fact, the most popular words to describe the situation, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, were “ridiculous,” “disgusting,” “stupid” and “frustrating.” A whopping 72% viewed the process negatively and only 2% had warm feelings about the talks.
The negotiations collapsed six times, and each time the stakes got higher. As the deadline loomed closer, the rhetoric grew more heated. In the last week alone lawmakers have accused one another of “hostage-taking,” “sugar coating Satan’s sandwich,” “ramming peas down people’s throats,” and in an unfortunate remark, Vice President Joe Biden told House Democrats that the GOP had a “gun to their heads.”
On cable TV and political blogs it was even worse. The left accused Republicans of trying to bring down the economy, and by extension President Obama. The right said Republicans are “lying to themselves” and that they “got screwed” when they missed the opportunity to cut more. Did Obama “lose” because he wasn’t aggressive enough, Chris Matthews asked on Hardball? “Well, that’s not how he handled the Somali pirates,” responded author Richard Wolffe.
Enter Gabby Giffords. Returning to cast a vote for the first time since being shot in the head six months ago, Giffords received a standing ovation on the House floor. Her appearance stopped the show, and marked a happy moment at the end of a bitter debate. But her presence also put Washington’s recent ugliness in perspective.
Deficit reduction is often the hardest thing Washington can do. When Obama first proposed a “grand bargain” to close budget shortfalls, he proposed that all sides “[get] in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.” Deficit reduction often requires everyone to lose. Democrats and Republicans’ attempts to win political points not only lost them a grand bargain, but the public’s respect.
Obama first came to prominence after his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in which he talked about the country not as Blue States or Red States, “but the United States of America.” Since the 2010 midterm elections, he’s been trying to regain the mantle of post-partisanship. But in the throes of the debt debate, Obama griped about polling and talked constantly about being the “adult” in the room. He confused appeasement with bipartisanship, giving ground until his base was up in arms. When confronted with a united congressional Democratic front and nowhere to go, it was Obama that GOP leaders called upon to give them what they wanted. The Pew poll found that a third of Americans had a less favorable view of Obama in light of the debt negotiations.
The GOP came off even worse. As many as 42% of Pew respondents said they had a less favorable opinion of Republicans in Congress after the debt ceiling talks. The Tea Party refused to accept yes for an answer, both from Obama and their own leaders, whom they sacrificed at the altar of Cut, Cap and Balance. Their definition of “shared sacrifice” was to not burn down the economy. Conservatives have changed the debate in Washington. As Rep. Jeff Flake noted the night of the bill crafted by House Speaker John Boehner collapsed for lack of GOP votes, “a year ago they would’ve been offering us $20 billion bridges, now all they can offer us is pizza.” They have forced passage of a bill that enacts trillions of dollars in historic cuts – though they could’ve gotten more if they’d shown an ounce of flexibility and tried for a grand bargain — and most of them voted against it.
Washington has been working at a breakneck speed for three years now. First, Democrats passed record amounts of legislation in a Congress that rivaled Lyndon’s Johnson’s Great Society. Then Republicans made frantic efforts to undo much of it. The debt deal, which required mutual sacrifice, was an uncomfortable departure from the partisan wars of recent years. As the hotly contested bill passed the House 269-162 on Monday night and the Senate prepared to take it up on Tuesday, the debate was no longer about successful bipartisan votes, but about who “lost” and why. But perhaps the biggest failure — and potentially the most problematic down the road — is Washington’s inability to come together unless life and death hang in the balance.