Governing by blackmail
Suppose President Barack Obama announced:
“Unless Republicans agree to my proposal for gun control, I will use my authority as commander in chief to scuttle one aircraft carrier a week in the bottom of the ocean.
“I invite Republican leaders to come to the White House and negotiate a deal to preserve our military strength. I hope Republicans will work with me to prevent the loss of our carrier fleet.
“If the Republicans refuse to negotiate, I will be compelled to begin by scuttling the USS George Washington in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, with 80 aircraft on board.”
In that situation, we would all agree that Obama had gone nuts. Whatever his beefs with Republicans, it would be an inexcusable betrayal to try to get his way by destroying our national assets. That would be an abuse of power and the worst kind of blackmail.
And in that kind of situation, I would hope that we as journalists wouldn’t describe the resulting furor as a “political impasse” or “partisan gridlock.” I hope that we wouldn’t settle for quoting politicians on each side as blaming the other. It would be appropriate to point out the obvious: Our president had tumbled over the edge and was endangering the nation.
Today, we have a similar situation, except that it’s a band of extremist House Republicans who are deliberately sabotaging America’s economy and damaging our national security — all in hopes of gaining leverage on unrelated issues.
The shutdown of government by House Republicans has already cost at least $1.2 billion, with the tab increasing by $300 million a day. Some estimates are much higher than that.
The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns cost the country $2.1 billion at today’s value, and the current one is also likely to end up costing billions — a cost imposed on every citizen by House Republicans, even as members of Congress pay themselves.
The government shutdown and risk of default also undermine America’s strength around the world. It’s not just that 72 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workforce has been furloughed. It’s not simply that “the jeopardy to the safety and security of this country will increase” daily, according to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence.
Nor is it just that the White House telephone number is now answered with a recording that says to call back when government is functioning again. It’s not simply that several countries have issued travel advisories about visiting America. It’s not just that we’re mocked worldwide, with the French newspaper Le Monde writing: “Jefferson, wake up! They’ve gone crazy!”
Rather, it’s that America’s strength and influence derive in part from the success of our political and economic model. When House Republicans shut our government down and leave us teetering on the abyss of default, we are a diminished nation. We have less influence. We have less raw power, as surely as if we had fewer aircraft carriers.
Some Americans think that this crisis reflects typical partisan squabbling. No. Democrats and Republicans have always disagreed, sometimes ferociously, about what economic policy is best, but, in the past, it was not normal for either to sabotage the economy as a negotiating tactic.
In a household, husbands and wives disagree passionately about high-stakes issues like how to raise children. But normal people do not announce that, if their spouse does not give in, they will break all the windows in the house.
Hard-line House Republicans seem to think that their ability to inflict pain on 800,000 federal workers by furloughing them without pay gives them bargaining chips. The hard-liners apparently believe that their negotiating position is strengthened when they demonstrate that they can wreck American governance.
The stakes rise as we approach the debt limit and the risk of default — which the Treasury Department notes could have an impact like that of the 2008 financial crisis and “has the potential to be catastrophic.” Astonishingly, Republican hard-liners see that potential catastrophe as a source of bargaining power in a game of extortion: We don’t want anything to happen to this fine American economy as we approach the debt limit, so you’d better meet our demands.
In this situation, it strikes a false note for us as journalists to cover the crisis simply by quoting each side as blaming the other. That’s a false equivalency.
The last time House Republicans played politics with this debt limit, in 2011, Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating. In the long run, that may mean higher debt payments and higher taxes.
My opening example of a president scuttling naval ships was ludicrous. No one would do that. But if we default because of extremist House Republicans, the cost could be much greater to our economy and to our national security than the loss of a few aircraft carriers.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.