Judging from some political leaders’ responses, you might think they had just reduced the U.S. deficit to zero. “It will be a win for everyone,” Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid called it. Referring to an auto loan program that was saved from the chopping block in the negotiations, Sen. Barbara Boxer said “this is a very big and important move. It says we met each other halfway. We saved the jobs. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was more tempered in his enthusiasm, but even he called the compromise “a reasonable way to keep the government operational.”
If this is what success looks like, I don’t want to see failure. Any cynic paying attention might wonder if Congress engages in these ridiculous games of brinksmanship not just because they have opposing views, but because they want to come off as heroes who save the country from a disastrous shutdown. It’s as if they’re on a race to the bottom, hoping that if their job approval rating could go even lower—it already sits at just 17 percent—any little sign of leadership will look even better in such stark relief.
Of course, I realize that’s not their conscious goal. (Or at least, I hope it isn’t.) But in the process of engaging in these incessant acts of brinksmanship, they’re succeeding at ratcheting down our expectations so low that even the most risky steps forward look like true accomplishments. The public has come to expect so little from Congress that when they do actually succeed at something, however minor, it still seems something worth touting at their next campaign stop.
I also realize that Congress’s fights come from truly oppositional political views, and that until common ground is found and a system that has Congress constantly running for re-election is reviewed, we’re unlikely to get anywhere. One party has its feet held to the fire by a newly powerful far right wing. The other is trying to prove it can still be a tough negotiator and stand firm after giving much up in recent fights. Until that dynamic changes, we’re likely to see many more of these battles.
But until that happens, let’s try to set the bar a little higher. A “win” that costs the government money—it takes something, after all, to make all those preparations for a shutdown—is not a triumph. A “win” that could delay disaster aid to people who’ve been subject to natural disaster is not an achievement. And a “win” that shows the world our leaders fight when there’s nothing to fight over is hardly something accomplished.
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