One attribute of democracy is that losers accept defeat without resorting to the force of arms or destroying the government with which they disagree. Indeed, this is democracy’s essence: the peaceful resolution of conflicts by some mechanism that traces its ultimate authority to the mass of voters. By threatening to “shut down” the government or reject a needed increase in the federal debt ceiling, many congressional Republicans seem oblivious to these widely embraced norms of behavior.
It is not that Republicans have single-handedly caused the unending budget impasse. Far from it. President Obama and congressional Democrats deserve much blame. As almost everyone must now know, the crux of the budget problem lies in the rising costs of Social Security, Medicare and other programs for older Americans. By 2038, Social Security and Medicare alone will claim one dollar in nine of the U.S. economy, according to the latest Congressional Budget Office projections. Now, it’s one dollar in 12. In 1990, it was one in 17.
Republicans correctly argue that the central budget task is to control this spending. Unless it is, there will be continuous budget deficits, higher taxes or deep cuts in other programs. Yet, the president, though repeatedly congratulating himself on tackling entitlement programs, hasn’t done so in any serious way. He has yet to address the American people on the need to raise eligibility ages, cut benefits for wealthier recipients and control health spending. By and large, congressional Democrats have also dodged the real issues. Until they commit to reducing the growth of Social Security and Medicare, they cannot claim to be serious about budget negotiations.
As for Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act), Republicans are admittedly obsessed with it. But Democrats fomented much of this fanatical opposition. Pushing “universal” care in 2009 was predictably polarizing. This was clear then. In December 2008, I wrote a column urging president-elect Obama to focus on the economy and to delay action on health care, which could be “politically poisonous.” If obvious to me, it must have been obvious to everyone. The president and Democrats, having decided otherwise, now disingenuously wonder why Obamacare is polarizing.
Still, Democrats can thank Republicans for shielding them from more public disapproval. Shutting down the government’s nonessential functions may not be armed rebellion, but it’s symbolically akin. It implies contempt for democratic institutions by having a minority undo prior decisions of the majority. It threatens public disorder, uncertainty or even chaos. Failing to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October (it’s been increased 78 times since 1960) would compound the damage, because it would be hard to know who — of government’s many claimants and creditors — would be paid. Financial markets would be shaken. Interest rates on federal debt would probably rise.
Obamacare seems a flimsy pretext for these bold bets. True, aside from bad timing, it is deeply flawed. But it’s not the end of the Republic. The federal government already subsidizes the health care of about 80 percent of Americans through insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid) and tax breaks for employer-provided insurance. Obamacare might increase this by 5 or 10 percentage points (not everyone would receive coverage). That’s significant but not earth-shattering. To many Americans, the backdoor overturning of Obamacare seems risky or devious. By a 50 percent to 38 percent margin, people oppose “defunding” it, reports a Pew poll, even though more people dislike the program than support it.
If the tea-party types want to limit federal spending, let them focus on Social Security and Medicare. Their quiet about these huge and popular programs suggests hypocrisy. What we have is bipartisan dysfunction. The unwillingness of Republicans and Democrats alike to face the growing spending on older Americans has unwisely concentrated cuts on defense and discretionary domestic programs. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is scant. Republicans are reckless and irresponsible. Democrats are reckless and irresponsible — but have managed to look respectable.
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