It is so bad that Vice President Joe Biden, revealed in that debate with Paul Ryan to be one of the more obnoxious and arrogant and tone-deaf and rude human beings on the planet, was brought in at the last minute as our last hope — our ablest negotiation wizard and conciliator — for avoiding the fiscal cliff.
That’s like hiring Bobby Knight to handle media relations or Bobby Petrino to demonstrate motorcycle safety or Newt Gingrich to lecture on personal honor.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose previous professed purpose in life had been to so stymie public policy in America that Barack Obama could not possibly win the second term that he soundly won, despaired of trying to work with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a pugilist by background and metaphor.
So McConnell cried out publicly for Biden, with whom he’d hammered out private deals before when Biden was a U.S. senator.
Otherwise everyone’s taxes would go up. Otherwise we would endure automatic and untenable spending reductions in both domestic and defense programs. Otherwise we’d probably order up a stock market plummet and a recession.
Presumably Joe behaves better in a private negotiation over the future of the country than in a televised debate with a Republican tyro.
He and McConnell talked through the night and were getting somewhere.
Just think about that for a moment: Your taxes and your economy are at risk, and, as you sleep, your fate rests in the hands of ... Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell.
Now there’s a bleeping big deal for you, to quote Joe’s typically restrained stage whisper about health care reform.
I was on a morning news talk show panel with McConnell in Washington in 1993. I didn’t think he had much to say. If you’d told me then that our national future would be in his hands nearly 20 years later, I would have laughed loud.
No great country could possibly lose that much ground in two decades.
In the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney was advancing the charge — bogus, of course — that President Obama had idly let our military defenses go to pot.
Romney mentioned massive defense cuts that were looming. He was referring to “sequestration,” which was the process ordered up to get us through our last debt ceiling crisis. It was the one by which $1.2 trillion in domestic and defense cuts would begin occurring unless Congress made a different budget deal.
Obama scoffed at Romney’s charge and said, almost casually: “That will not happen.”
He was saying that, of course, the lame duck Congress would reach a deal to keep that from occurring.
You will recall that apocalyptic and anarchic Republicans wouldn’t even vote to let the nation pay its due debt unless they extracted spending cuts. That stalemate went to the last minute, of course.
We got out of it only by ordering up those surely untenable automatic cuts by the end of the year — half in defense to alarm Republicans and half in domestic programs to alarm Democrats — as leverage for a super-committee to assemble and agree on more reasonable and strategic reductions.
The super-committee failed. Then everything else failed. Then it was New Year’s Eve and Joe Biden came riding in on a horse.
We will be facing the same absurdity in a couple of months.
You see, we met our debt ceiling again Monday. That is to say we have bills due that we do not have enough congressionally granted borrowing authority to pay.
Last time this happened, the Republicans took us so close to the brink that our nation’s credit rating got downgraded. And we cooked up this sequestration business that had us all gnarled up on New Year’s Eve.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will move around some accounts for about two months. But we’ll need Congress to raise the debt ceiling by sometime in late February.
This is not a spending issue. The money has already been spent, which is to say borrowed.
Obama toyed with the idea of simply raising the debt ceiling himself unilaterally — to get the bills paid without destructive folderol — and inviting a lawsuit. But then his lawyers advised that there wasn’t any remote interpretation of the Constitution that would allow him to do that.
So now he says he has learned his lesson. It is Congress’ job to get paid the bills that Congress has incurred. He says he will simply sit tight and count on Congress to do the only responsible thing. There will be no more negotiation, he says. There will be no more peripheral give and take attached to the matter, he says.
Who can blame him? Negotiating last time caused the nation to lose its credit rating and led to the curious circumstance by which everything was up to Joe Biden.
So it is up to Congress to pay our bills, avoid further downgrading of our credit limit and send a signal of vital stability to the world.
How can we the people possibly fix this mess, assuming that constitutional amendments for a parliamentary system or an unicameral Congress are out of the question?
We need to do two things.
One is demand more by raising our voices and extracting punishment with our votes. That punishment should me meted out mostly, but not exclusively, to mindlessly obstructive Republicans of the kind Arkansas has only recently fallen in love with.
The other is reform ourselves. We are the problem.
We are the ones benefiting from federal borrowing and spending and tax-cutting. We are the ones either lining up in polarized ideological camps or disengaging in the process except to whine about the dysfunction we actually insist upon.
You generally get the government you demand and deserve.
And I just insulted the heck out of us.
John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.