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Published: Thursday, 8/11/2011

COMMENTARY

Political childishness produces a tantrum we can't afford

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

 A pox on them all. We the people should revolt. Business as usual is killing us.

Our 401(k)s are bleeding red. Whatever modest gains we made this year have been wiped out. Retirement savings are back to being upside-down.

What the heck is going on? From Main Street we watched the financial markets convulse, President "No Drama" Obama try to inject calm, oblivious partisans finger-point, and grim economists talk double-dip recession.

How low can a proud nation can go? Throughout it all, ordinary Americans sink deeper into despair until the disconnection between those who struggle with more month than money and those elected to bring relief is complete.

It's easy to blame the cast of political characters in Washington. They've made a mess of everything, acting like children, throwing tantrums, refusing to budge, demanding all or nothing.

Republicans brought the country to the brink of a shutdown as if it were a game they could win. Tea Party types stamped their feet, dismissed the danger of default as overblown, and ultimately brought the GOP leadership to its knees.

The longer the opportunistic, ideological war over raising the debt ceiling was waged, the more damaging the spectacle became to America's reputation and economic stability.

We and the world saw the government of the most powerful country on Earth imploding.

We saw political leaders incapable of behaving like adults and clueless about working together in the national interest. A routine, procedural formality -- automatically approved by Republicans throughout the George W. Bush presidential era to cover the national debt -- turned into a tactical battle by one faction within one party.

The consequences of that dragged-out, needless GOP fight have been dire. The U.S. government experienced its first-ever credit downgrade last week. The next business day, the market took a nosedive. The market rallied the next day, then slumped again.

The wild gyrations on Wall Street demonstrate how unnerving Washington's conduct had been to investors.

The validity of the Standard & Poor's decision may be debatable. The inability of current political leaders to govern effectively is not.

Even after the latest market meltdown, Republican lawmakers were adamant that compromise over revenue increases was unthinkable. Even after the credit agency stressed that spending cuts alone aren't enough to place the national debt -- and by extension, the economy -- on a sustainable path, the GOP held firm against higher taxes.

In a sop to the new Republicans backed by the Tea Party, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia declared their opposition to any fiscal solution that includes "job-killing" taxes. Draconian cuts to programs for the poor and elderly are preferable to raising taxes or closing tax loopholes for fat cats.

But multimillionaires and billionaires have affluent lifestyles to uphold. Republican affection for the wealthiest 2 percent of the population is embodied in the temporarily extended George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

Conservatives argue that the tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating more economic activity. If only that were true. But where are the jobs?

If only the Democrats' stalwart leader in the White House had the fortitude to lead instead of acquiesce. President Obama has been weak with his opponents, and with the party that exploded the national debt under the last administration with massive tax cuts, two unfunded wars, and unfunded Medicare expansion.

Mr. Obama is tentative when he should be tenacious. At a time of persistently high unemployment, a housing crisis, and anemic economic growth, Mr. Obama would rather capitulate to partisan nonsense than use his bully pulpit forcefully to promote rational policy.

While re-election colors his reticence, we're left with a so-called super-committee to deal with an unsustainable level of debt. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to give an inch on revenue increases or entitlement cuts, respectively.

The understandable result has been a lack of confidence in the government's capacity to meet prior commitments and prepare for future ones.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is rattled by a downgraded credit rating. The risk of another recession is real. We're losing more ground. No doubt the predicament will be exploited in next year's campaigns.

Let the political spin begin. But a pox on us if, after the debt-ceiling scene we've witnessed, we buy into the pandering and endorse the childish gimmes that come at our great expense.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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