As we trudge through our monotonous daily lives, a splash of down-to-the-wire suspense is generally a welcome change of pace. You had no idea what was going on with Lost, or whether you’d like the finale — you probably didn’t! — but you relished the build-up. As a sports fan, there’s nothing more exhilarating than watching the final two minutes of a close Super Bowl or NBA Finals game, even if, to your downstairs-neighbors, it sounds like interrogators are shocking you with a pair of jumper cables.
Since the midterm elections, which ushered in a freshman class of no-compromise Republican crusaders, politics has also provided its fair share of tense, unpredictable endings. With cooperation proving harder to come by, legislative decisions about the size and scope of government (so basically everything) are increasingly being dragged out until the last possible moment. In April, a budget agreement averted a government shutdown with less than an hour to go. Now, we have the debt-ceiling grudge match, which whizzed right past the “we should probably reach a deal by now” deadline of July 22 and is careening inexorably toward the “we need to reach a deal, like, right now” deadline of August 2. (Or August 8, or August 10, according to some analyses. Everyone is basically guessing.)
While the pressure of that dwindling countdown clock has turned the machinations of Washington into it’s own kind of drama, it’s certainly not the fun kind. The day-to-day back-and-forth is too grueling, the worst-case scenarios too awful. You’re anxious to see what happens next, but also terrified of what the outcome might be. Even for those of us who masochistically choose to pay close attention to politics, these photo-finish debates are increasingly becoming a form of ulcer-inducing agony.
The government shutdown incident back in April was frustrating enough, but pinpointing the most painful part of the debt-ceiling “debate” is like selecting your least favorite Jersey Shore star: It’s hard because you’re so intimately familiar with so many plausible contenders. Is it knowing that an easily attainable solution is being blocked by a certain faction’s kamikaze-style attachment to its own ideology? The legitimate possibility that the painfully slow economic recovery could be wiped out by an unforced error? Or the dawning realization that we could be in store for at least another year and a half of these excruciating slogs — and maybe much longer than that?
The worst part, though, may be the helplessness, a feeling that is manageable and even kind of exciting when you’re watching the Giants going for it on 4th down, but is completely nauseating when the stakes in Washington are so high. Ideally, Congress would have read the polls long ago, absorbed the public’s collective appeal for compromise, and cut a deal without taking America right up to the brink of disaster. The American people haven’t even been that specific on what the deal had to look like, just that they wanted one to happen long before they had to stress about economic Armageddon. America has learned not to be too picky about these things.
But Congress seems to be continuing undeterred on the deranged path of its choosing, like a rogue cab driver who welcomes you inside, locks the doors, and steers you toward, well, you don’t know where, but by the looks of the route he’s taking, somewhere very, very, bad, where you didn’t ask to go.