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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Over the falls
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories will be familiar with the legendary The Final Problem, which documents Sherlock Holmes' final confrontation with his nemesis, the villainous Professor Moriarty. In the conclusion of the story in which our master detective is supposed to have met his end, Sherlock and Moriarty duel in a wrestling match to the death on a cliff overlooking the treacherous Reichenbach Falls. Moriarty would not rest until Sherlock were killed, and Sherlock would not rest until Moriarty were captured. With neither man willing to cede the struggle to the other, they both are supposed to have pitched over the edge, locked arm in arm to the death.

It's an apt metaphor for what might happen in a world where Democrats were everything we wanted to them to be as we approach a default on the full faith and credit of the United States.

Let us imagine for a moment that we were to live in an alternate universe, one where every Democrat in Congress had a firm resolve and unbending backbone, and where the President of the United States were a true believer in the power of Keynesian policy, and an opponent of giving even an inch to the conservatives looking to dismantle the safety net. And let us presume that in this alternate universe, all Democratic officials from county selectman to President of the United States were incorruptible servants of the public good, unbeholden to corporate donors.

If this pleasant fantasy were made real, what might happen? Well, one might argue that the nation would never have been brought to this point. And there's a good reason to make such an argument. But in the absence of extending our fantasy to revision of history, what might transpire in our alternate universe as we approach default?

The answer, unfortunately, isn't much better than in our actual, corrupted universe.

The reality is that no matter what our political beliefs and strength of will might be, rational people in public policy know that the default ceiling must be raised. Defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States is simply not an option.

But at least a very sizable portion of Congressional Republicans are simply not rational, but belong to a market fundamentalist cult. They would rather see fiscal Armageddon than a compromise of their ideology in any way, shape or form.

Today's news brings yet more evidence of the same: John Boehner has introduced a preposterous plan to cut $1.8 trillion, including cuts to core entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The plan is already dead-on-arrival in the Democratic Senate and on the White House desk. Even in our imperfect Democratic establishment, this plan has zero chance of passing. And yet Boehner's biggest headache is not Democrats, but members of his own caucus, who feel the plan does not go far enough. Michele Bachmann, who readers should be reminded is leading the field of potential Republican aspirants to the Oval Office, has already declared that she and her allies will not vote for any increase in the default ceiling that does not include equal cuts to discretionary spending.

So if you are Democrat in our perfected alternate universe, what do you do? No vote to raise the ceiling is valid absent a vote of the Republican House, "Constitutional options" notwithstanding. Theoretically, you lay down a marker that starts your negotiating position at a clean increase in the ceiling. To which the zombie death cult responds that they won't vote for anything less than $2 trillion in cuts, including to basic entitlement programs.

Now what? Do you wait for market jitters and Wall St. overlords to bring the Republicans back in line? Wall St. types have already met in secret with Boehner and said that they were OK with small tax increases, but begged him to just make sure the default ceiling got raised already, so that their precious portfolios would be protected. Boehner knows the stakes. But the Teahadist wing of the GOP, about 60 Congressmembers strong, doesn't respect John Boehner much more than they do Nancy Pelosi. Boehner knows that he's already on his last legs with his caucus, and that Eric Cantor is just waiting for the opportunity to ease the Speaker into his political grave

Most of these people are openly or secretly hoping for the sort of Armageddon that they believe will finally destroy the welfare state once and for all in America--no matter the cost. Nor is it just the the conservative reps in Congress: a major portion of the GOP base wants no compromise whatsoever, even as the vast majority of the Democratic base believes that compromise is the best route. For a Democrat, there is little political risk in compromise. For a Republican, any wavering or compromise will likely be met with a primary challenge from Grover Norquist. As a Democrat, do you take the risk that the GOP will panic and see reason? Or do you risk instead that they double down, forcing you to give them the money in the hopes they don't shoot the hostage?

In short, do you let Professor Moriarty walk, knowing full well it probably means your death shortly thereafter but at least gives you a chance of survival, or do you lock arm in arm with him, plunging straight over the falls? You know only one thing: Moriarty will see it through to the end, either way. Or to use another, more ancient parable, do you allow the baby to be cut in two, or do you give it to the false mother in the hope that the American People will stand in judgment and award you custody of the economy in the future?

Unfortunately, this isn't fiction, Sherlock doesn't have a secret grappling move to ensure his survival at Moriarty's expense, the American voter isn't nearly as wise as King Solomon, and we don't live in an alternate universe of Democratic perfection. This is the real world.

And in the real world, the choices are looking pretty grim.