A Pew/WaPo poll over the weekend asked people to give the one word they believed best described the then-still-ongoing debate in congress over the debt ceiling and budget cutting issue. The results are:
The disgust was shared by Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and people reported that their impressions of both Obama and the Republican congressional leadership had worsened (from their already low levels.)
That no one is impressed with the specter of a bunch grown men and women squabbling endlessly is probably unsurprising — if we saw what congress was up to more often we’d probably have this reaction frequently. However, it seems to me that there are two things which make this go-round particularly bad.
First, Americans are not happy with the set of options put before them. They don’t want to see the debt going higher and higher, they don’t want to see their taxes increased, and the don’t want to see programs they see as essential cut (though they do feel sure that there must be a lot that could be cut.) I wouldn’t by any means say that we are in a no win situation. It would be possible to close tax loopholes and perhaps even make some very small increases in rates on certain income brackets without hurting the citizenry or the economy very much. Similarly, while just about any spending that is cut will inconvenience someone, there is a lot that could be cut without doing serious harm to the country. Both of these are probably going to eventually need to happen, but in the mean time people are simply reacting with dislike to all the options put before them.
Second, we seem to have an unusually bad crop of political leaders right now. Obama seems perfectly happy to sit on the sidelines criticizing the Republicans without providing any useful leadership — and even his own partisans seem to finally be starting to notice. And among the GOP we seem to have a mixture of the unrealistic on the right and the hopelessly mealy-mouthed in the center. In some ways, Paul Ryan took a fairly statesman-like approach, putting together a budget with some vision after two years of the Democrats failing to produce any budget at all. However, in part due to the warring factions within the GOP and the naivete of some of the Tea Party members in regards to fiscal issues, no one on the right has been able to provide unified and sensible leadership during the debt ceiling fight.
It seems hard to imagine that the left has much useful to say in the months and years to come on this topic. Their preferred solution of taxing only the rich while spending like crazy simply won’t work as our nation’s demographics become incapable of supporting the kind of entitlement programs we already have, and even if they were to have the courage to tell the American people the truth (that their vision can only be supported in the long term by raising taxes on the middle class) the American people do not seem to like the idea.
Where we ought to be seeing some real understanding and leadership is from the GOP — if only it could manage to put forward some leadership that has both principles and understanding at the same time. Right now most of our leaders (both in congress and among the potential presidential nominees) seem to have one but not the other when it comes to fiscal issues. The niche of speaking honestly, clearly and sensibly to the American people about budget issues, and helping them understand and support the kind of actions that will be necessary to get us back on the path to a reasonable deficit, is one that remains to be filled.