The Doomsday Clock: Frank Rich and Adam Moss Relive the Debt-Ceiling Countdown

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Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

July 30:

Adam: Hi, Frank — So since we're three days till debt doomsday (rapture without the angels), maybe we'll track this in real time — an entry or two today, which is Saturday, then tomorrow, Monday, and on to the end of days.

So, here we are this morning. John Boehner finally passes a bill by completely capitulating to the Tea Party freshman — it still only squeaks through by eight votes. Instant conclusion: His speakership — doomed when he'd only caved about 70 percent — is suddenly saved. The bill lasts exactly 126 minutes as live legislation. At 8:25pm the Senate kills it, just as they had been promising during all those days Boehner was futilely trying to line up votes (and remember: we're only four days till doomsday!) But then lo: Scott Brown, the Republican senator running for reelection in Democratic Taxachusetts, signals he kinda might vote for Harry Reid's bill. A bipartisan moment! That signals that a compromise just might come out if the Senate, which suggests that the most important person in America right now might be ... Mitch McConnell!**  Oh and the president is using his bully pulpit to tweet, urging his tweeties to flood the switchboards of legislators imploring them to compromise. Very Lyndon Johnson. The tweeties don't seem to like that very much. Pundits are desperately looking for historical precedent. The Clinton government shutdown doesn’t quite work, as much as Democratic-leaning writers loved the way that one ended. The consensus seems to be: lose/lose for everyone. I want to go to sleep until Tuesday (Tuesday, Nov 8, 2012CK, actually). But no — have this dialogue to do — and it's a gorgeous weekend morning in the Northeast. So that's where we are on Saturday, July 30. Where are we REALLY?

Frank: Hi Adam — I woke up Saturday morning with two thoughts, at least one of which you share — that McConnell is now the most important man in Washington, and that the next U.S. president will be someone who was not in Washington while this nightmare unfolded. My guess about this weekend is that McConnell, much more a tool of GOP moneyed interests than of the Tea Party, will find enough Browns and Snowes and Lugars to get a Senate bill acceptable to Reid and the Democrats. (They are not far apart anyway.) So we don't default, but we end up with a nonetheless egregious bill that will further slow a stone-cold economy with new short-term spending cuts, perhaps to the point of a devastating new recession. So yes it's lose/lose for everyone, most of all Americans not in Washington. As for Twitter, it's a medium, not a message. If the president's message is merely about process ("let's all be adults like me and compromise"), it doesn't matter how it is transmitted. Lighting up switchboards is at best a hollow victory.

Adam: You were thinking perhaps of Chris Evans in Captain America?**  I agree that if you're running in 2012, you want to be a Romney or Perry right now. (If it were later in the race they might be held accountable to a position in this debate, so we can see just how craven they are, but right now they can just hide). In the meantime, I am reminded of just how awful the job of president is (at this point — and maybe for a good long while). Sharing a government with kamikaze legislators, you can't hope to do a lot of good. Just hope to block others from blowing up the place.

Frank: Alas Evans is locked into his Hollywood contract. Yes, Romney has scrupulously avoided taking any position on this fracas up until now, and Perry too. Terrible a job as the presidency is, they lust after it, and there is nothing politically to gain by taking a stand. (That a principled stand for sanity in their own party might be good for their country doesn't even enter the equation.) No president in any case can stop these kamikaze radicals from holding us all hostage. And they are almost literally like kids playing with matches. As a top aide to one Senate Democrat emailed me this morning about the tea partiers: "What I find amazing is their lack of understanding about financial markets/credit/default and what it really means."

July 31:

Adam: So this is where I think we are Sunday morning. The Republicans pissed all over the Reid plan (enough senators publicly declared they wouldn't support it to make it perfectly clear it wouldn't pass the filibuster threshold; house members staged a symbolic vote trashing it). McConnell rang up the White House, Obama and Biden started to deal. The compromise bill that's likely to come out of this conversation will probably (though it's not yet clear how) sidestep another debt ceiling horror show before the election but in other respects be pretty much exactly what the Republicans wanted all along — though maybe not the Tea Party Republicans, some of whom clearly welcome a default.

At the moment I find myself right along side them. Not really, I suppose, but couldn't the country use a quick bit of shock therapy to demonstrate what government actually does? Stop those paychecks and we all might realize how inextricably we are connected (for good and bad) to the federal government? How else to shift the dynamics of this argument, to restore at least a rational basis with which to debate just how much government we need and how much we want? (An argument I really think we need, by the way.) I was interested in Stanley Greenberg's article in this morning's Times, in which he wrote that, as long as Americans don't trust government, Democrats will always lose (even if the Republicans are the ones responsible for a lot of what they detest about it) because the heart of the Democratic idea is that government can do good and the heart of the Republican argument is the opposite. I'm not exactly hoping for a default that will throw us right back into recession, but I'm not sure how this particular hostage crisis ever really ends. I don't see any reason the kamikazes will stop trying to torch the government. Why should they? What they're doing works. And I'm not sure I see the way they're ever going to be held accountable for their anarchist ways. Elections won't do it (if they're from hard-right districts, their constituents will keep electing them), and they're impervious to arguments from the likes of us.

Are you as dejected as I am? Can you say something to make me feel better?

Frank: I wish I could — I wish I could make myself feel better, too. I've just been watching David Plouffe spin the White House**  line on the morning shows — it was truly depressing. This deal — still not nailed down but the broad picture is clearly being hinted — accomplishes nothing good except extending the debt limit, which never should have been in play in the first place. So we end up with budget cuts that will inflict pain on vulnerable Americans; absolutely no patriotic sacrifice from those at the top, who will keep their tax cuts and loopholes; and no prospect of any government action that might seriously help the jobless, let alone the poor. As for the kamikazes, yes, they've proven they can take the country hostage and get — if not exactly what they want, a complete reorientation of the debate on their terms — and the result will be further slowing of a nearly growth-free economy, even without a default. And what if there had been a default? I would like to believe it would work as shock therapy on these radicals, but they simply don't believe in reality as we know it — they discount default as a concern much as they do, say, global warming. So if default had actually happened and chaos had ensued? Michele Bachmann would find a way to blame it on Obama — just as Obama is now responsible for all the debt piled up by eight years of Bush — and absolve her cadre of any responsibility.

So I do feel dejected, and I seriously worry that a second great recession, 1937-style, or prolonged Japan-style stagnation could be on the way because of the Republicans' nihilist agenda and Obama's surrender to it with nary a fight along the way.

August 1:

Adam: Monday morning. Went pretty much as predicted. No point rehearsing the details, can't bear to type them. As of this writing, votes in the House and the Senate still pending. Pundits are merciless to everybody — but perhaps mostly to Obama. Markets stable, but unimpressed.

I don't think anybody's fury against Obama is misplaced, but I do think every single analysis of this negotiation has to begin and end with the people really responsible for the wreckage — the kamikazes, pyromaniacs, anarchists — call them what you will. There is no equivalence here.

Having said that, a question. No doubt Obama should have negotiated a debt ceiling increase at the time last December when he capitulated on extending the Bush tax cuts in exchange for various economy-improving measures (I can't even remember what they were). And there's little question it would have been massively more satisfying to watch him fight harder, to make an articulate defense of the principles he cares about, and to repeatedly blast the obstructionists. Cathartic, to be sure. As a negotiating tactic, though, I truly don't know. Frank, what do you think he should have done here? Called their bluff and held tight? Or made the kind of constitutional end-run Bill Clinton suggested and that Paul Krugman brought up again this morning? What were his real options?

Frank: I thought Krugman made a good point that at least that constitutional end-run could have been used as a threat. And what else could Obama have done? I wouldn't underestimate the points you made. His failure to clearly state a set of the principles at the outset — keeping them simple and consistent, not burying them in excessive and vacillating oratorical foliage — and his failure to repeatedly blast the obstructionists (as FDR**  would have done) are the same traits that have hobbled him in all these "negotiations," from the protracted health-care year to the previous budget impasse. Whether these failures of Leadership 101 are a matter of professorial style, a Stockholm syndrome-induced false faith in GOP "reasonableness", or, worse, simply a lack of hard-core principles he wants to stand up for, I don't know. And he should have made an in-your-face dare to the kamikazes to bring down the economy. Maybe we would have ended up at the same place, but I wonder. Wall Street was telling McConnell and Boehner, you better stop the crazies or the whole thing will crash. That's exactly the same message that they sent to Bush and Paulson in pre-Tea Party fall 2008, forcing them to blink and swallow the very un-GOP concession of TARP. This dynamic gave Obama leverage in this crisis that, to my eye, he never really exploited and perhaps didn't have the guts to exploit.

Adam: I think Obama's mistake is to imagine people actually want "a reasonable man" who brings people together; seems to me Americans like leaders who win and what they win is often a secondary concern. I was going to say that the only relief of this thing drawing to a close is that I can check out for a while (my obsession with every last twist of the last few days was exhausting as well as dispiriting) but it seems to me the election season has now actually, truly, fully begun. Romney has come out against the bill (a brave position!), along with Bachmann — Huntsman is alone among the Republicans candidates in supporting it. (Interjected plug: Readers should check out John Heilemann's story in this week's magazine on the Romney/Huntsman rivalry and its implications for 2012 ... ) I was happy to read Nate Silver's analysis that the deal is not quite as bad as it looks, but at this point I'll cling to anything.

Among other things, I am reminded how quickly the sands change. In the monthly magazines this month are a number of essays taking the position that Obama is unbeatable — they reflected a consensus view held around the time they closed. Obama had just vanquished Osama bin Laden and that's how it looked. I remember you and I even had a conversation to the effect that we found it difficult to imagine how he could lose next November. And now it seems very much otherwise.

Frank: Nate Silver's analysis is a thin reed of hope because while he's right that the real austerity measures are on the back end of the bill (after the 2012 election therefore), that way of looking at it in itself shows how much the Tea Party has tugged the debate to the right. The idea that Democrats might fight for pro-active jobs programs, including some that require some short-term spending, wasn't and isn't even on the table. Obama taking bin Laden out did look big — and it did pay two lasting political dividends: It shut down Donald Trump**  and his idiotic stunt candidacy, and it may have ended neocon domination of GOP foreign policy; ever since then, Republican divisions on Bush foreign policy (and Afghanistan) have been pronounced, and they'll go into 2012 in disarray on that front. But I don't find it hard to imagine Obama losing anymore. As I wrote in my first piece for New York and the pollster Stanley Greenberg reiterated in the Sunday Times piece you referred to earlier, Americans don't believe Obama is on their side but instead sides with the establishment that sent the country into the crapper. Many Americans don't even know what the debt limit is. When did Obama mention "jobs" at any point in these lost weeks of fighting the kamikazes?

August 2:

Adam: So there it is, over finally — with a 269-161 vote in the House last night and a 74-26 vote in the Senate today. Comfortable margins, but a wide range of holdouts — representing bipartisan disgust. The only bit of sun was provided by the surprise entrance of Gabby Giffords**  to vote last night — wonderful to see her, of course, but I thought also a weirdly off piece of political theater (she leapt from her recovery bed to vote for ... this?). Frank, concluding thoughts?

Frank: And so the deed is done, Obama is for the umpteenth time promising that now he'll pivot to focusing on jobs, and the Dow Jones (as I write) is tanking. The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story this morning saying that Tea Party groups nationwide feel the same way we do — albeit in mirror image — that the whole thing was a travesty and they came away with virtually nothing, i.e., the "compromise" didn't go far enough for them in terms of demolishing the federal government as Americans have known it since the New Deal. The difference between them and us is that they have proven that they have power — over both the GOP and ineffectual Democrats. The revolution of the kamikazes, it's safe to say, has only just begun!

Adam: Thanks for the cheerful conversation. In not entirely unrelated news, Frank writes in this week's magazine about Rupert Murdoch's America. (Aaron Sorkin writes a nice playlet to go along with it too, about Murdoch's Iago.) As usual, readers should send their questions to AskFrankRich@nymag.com. Until next week...