As the deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling got closer and closer this week, there was a little tiny part of me that couldn’t help hoping the Republicans would stick to their ransom demands and force the country into a default.
Sure, every economist, banker, business leader, financial reporter, and lemonade stand owner has been howling for the last two years that a debt limit breach would have unimaginably awful consequences for the U.S. economy, crash the markets, push us back into another recession, destroy jobs, cancel Christmas and your birthday and so forth.
But there’s still a part of me that wanted to see what would really happen. You know that part in Pulp Fiction when Travolta is about to stab Uma Thurman in the heart with the adrenaline, and Rosanna Arquette is sitting behind him watching in excited fascination?
That’s what I felt like. Is it really going to be as bad as they say? Because as full of crap as I feel Republicans have been throughout this mess, and as horribly as they’ve conducted themselves, they have had a point about one thing.
When the U.S. was about to go over the so-called “fiscal cliff” — when the arbitrary, across-the-board budget cuts called the sequester were scheduled to automatically kick in if the two parties couldn’t otherwise reach a budget agreement — commentators far and wide predicted ruinous consequences for the country. But then agreement proved elusive, and the sequester took hold, and nobody really noticed any difference.
Likewise, as the government neared the end of its funding, and House Republicans refused to keep the lights on unless the president orphaned his own health insurance reform (among several other demands), garments were rending all across the media landscape as predictions that a government shutdown would turn America from vibrant color to dreary black and white as children went hungry, workers were furloughed, and seniors stopped getting their Social Security checks. I don’t want to say that no one suffered during the shutdown — public workers were indeed furloughed without pay — but Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid kept the checks flowing. Except for a sudden (totally coincidental) surge of interest in national monuments that were closed (because national monuments are run by the government), the public at large didn’t feel any real consequences to the shutdown, either.
When you’re a teenager, and you’re bombarded by messages about what horrible, irrevocable damage you’ll be doing to your life if you so much as take a puff of a joint, and then you go ahead and try it anyway and find out that all that happened is you laughed your fool head off, put peanut butter on a cheese puff, and argued passionately that Krull was the greatest sci-fi film of all time, well, that’s when you start to think maybe everything they’re saying about cocaine and heroin might be bullshit too. Only one way to find out, right?
So it was as we crept closer to the debt limit: as all the other doom-and-gloom predictions had proved exaggerated, it was clear that the Republicans pushing us to that brink had learned the lesson of the boy who cried wolf.
I don’t want to see senior citizens go without their check or their medicine, or people to lose their jobs. So what I’m saying is a purely hypothetical flight of fancy. But it feels like at this point it would do us all some good to sort of reboot our relationship with the government; to let everyone finally find out, once and for all, what it feels like when the dreaded Big Government beast starves and collapses. Judging by the way Republicans squealed like stuck pigs over the closure of national parks and monuments, it seems that they would not react well to the loss of Social Security and Medicare, or the police, or the fire department, or the schools, or the post office, or any of the millions and millions of government functions that are so ingrained into our everyday lives that we don’t even notice or think about them.
In the abstract, they seem to feel like they truly don’t need them. As the deal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling was announced last night, I spent some time watching Fox News, where Sean Hannity welcomed Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, who engineered the shutdown and wasted no time in doubling down on the strategy, insisting that if only the Senate Republicans had had their back, the government would have stayed shut down and the Democrats would have caved to their demands in another week or so.
(The way Cruz immediately started pointing fingers at the 90% of the Republican party that wasn’t all-in on his pointless fundraising exercise strongly suggests that he isn’t just preparing to run for president, but to do it as a third-party candidate, to which I can only say YES PLEASE. I can’t imagine a purer hit of schadenfreude than watching this creepy, child-molestery dipshit made out of disproven ideas, failed strategies, and Brylcreem try to relate to people on a one-to-one level on the campaign trail. And, if he does it as a third-party candidate, the show could continue all the way to the general election! YES PLEASE!)
Republicans were also lightning-quick to insist that their fight against Obamacare isn’t over, and that they only lost in the court of public opinion because not enough people were experiencing the cataclysm of Obamacare to truly turn against it. “Reality is going to bring a backlash,” they kept insisting. Obamacare is an awful, job-wrecking burden and Americans are suffering because of it, they kept saying. If you’re not suffering yet, you will be soon, they predicted as confidently as predicting Tuesday will follow Wednesday.
This is a puzzling strategy, because no matter how badly the Democrats bungle the Obamacare rollout — indeed, they’re already bungling it on an administrative level, with the spotty service at healthcare.gov — there’s no way anyone is going to be suffering as horribly as Hannity and company are so assuredly predicting. We could all be wandering the post-apocalyptic hellscape from The Road Warrior and we’d be doing better than Fox News is promising. (Republicans’ track record with predictions — Iraq will be a cakewalk, Bill Clinton’s tax increase will crash the economy, Medicare will turn America Communist — is worth noting here.)
It’s a strange disconnect: the same people who have been warning that gradually enacting private-sector, free-market based insurance reform is going to cause the American experiment to spontaneously combust and immediately burn to the ground, indeed is already doing that even though it doesn’t come online for six more months, are at the same time insisting that defaulting on debt obligations — the glue that holds all of capitalism together — is no big deal. So while I don’t want to see anyone suffer — at least, I don’t want to see anyone who hasn’t spent the last three weeks cheerleading this horseshit to suffer — it would be nice to call the Tea Party’s bluff, and let them see just where they’re trying to lead us. Let’s spend a month or two in this Utopia that the dissolution of the government will supposedly bring and see who wants to stay there and who wants to turn the lights back on.
They’re right about this much: Reality is going to bring a backlash. A year from now, the true effects of Obamacare, whatever they turn out to be, will be felt. Maybe the Republicans are right, and it will be an unmitigated disaster and will drive the unemployment rate to 30 percent and destroy the economy and cancel Christmas and we’ll all wish that Ted Cruz and company had stuck to their guns and killed it, no matter what the collateral damage might have been.
But it seems likelier to me that it will do no such thing, that it will help a lot of people, mildly inconvenience a few other people, and do almost nothing to wreck America, the economy, the free market, Christmas, or your birthday. That’s when reality is going to have a backlash: when the dwindling number of people still listening to what Chicken Little News has to say about healthcare realizes that the sky is indeed not falling.
But that’s nothing compared to the backlash reality would have brought if they had forced the country into default, and by caving at the last second they’ve shown that they’ve known it all along. Now that they’ve blinked and revealed that they are well aware that a default would be a disaster, that Social Security and Medicare and the rest of “the entitlement state” are near and dear to enough of the electorate that endangering them would be electoral seppuku, it’s clear that 90% of what they’ve been saying the last few weeks (months, years, decades) has been bullshit — worse, bullshit that they knew was bullshit as they were saying it. The good news is, now that their bluff has been called, they’re highly unlikely to try it again.
But if they do, I’d just as soon they go all the way with it and get this argument over with once and for all.