Periscope Depth

you never give me your money; you only give me your funny paper

I was as virtuously given as a gentleman need to be; virtuous enough; swore little; diced not above seven times a week; went to a bawdy-house once in a quarter—of an hour; paid money that I borrowed, three or four times …

- Wm. Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1

A few friends shared David Brooks’s latest op-ed with some enthusiasm this week. So I gave it a read.

With Bobo it’s always a question of how far I can get without openly guffawing, spraying water out of my nose and upsetting the neighbors. In Monday’s column, it was this gem:

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

Lawd. In the century that’s already given us the Iraq Civil War, the Military Commissions Act, the Wall Street bailout and Fergie’s solo projects, defaulting on a debt would “stain their nation’s honor.” Oh no! Failure to raise the debt ceiling! At long last, have you no sense of decency?

And whence this icky stain, Brooks? Not from the awkwardness that would result as China, Japan and the U.K. pass the debt to each other, unwilling to make the phone call that would collapse the world economy. No, this stain would come from the United States breaking its sacred pledge to pay back money it borr– ah ha ha, oh ho, ho ho ho, ha ha ha, hrrm, sorry, give me a second. Ah ha. Hooooo. All right, I’m good.

Anyhow, Brooksie’s confused because, to paraphrase Mencken Sinclair, his job requires that he stay confused. If he doesn’t believe in his heart of hearts that the Opposition Party really wants to shrink the size of government, he’s out of work. He has to keep mistaking pretext for cause. And sure, if you believe that the Opposition Party is driven by the principle of reducing the size of government, and that their only failure is extremism in the pursuit of frugality, then I’ll bet they look like they’ve been “infected by a faction” (Brooks).

But if you believe that the Opposition Party wants power not to enforce a small government agenda but for its own sake, that they’re taking advantage of a “fiscal crisis” in which any economic fallout will be blamed on the Ruling Party and that they’re refusing to compromise not out of fanaticism or dishonor but because refusal to compromise makes you look strong and voters love strength more than peace, then the present becomes less baffling.

The Opposition Party has not been infected by Tea Party madness, any more than a man with a leashed pitbull needs to check his own stool for worms, rather than the dog’s. The Opposition Party wants power. It sees inflexibility in budget negotiations as the road to power. The Ruling Party wants to keep power. It sees any crisis that can be linked to its refusal to raise the debt limit as a threat to that power.

I never thought I’d be quoting David Frum with approval, but he sums it up more tersely than I can:

[I]t looks like Obama has set up yet another lopsided bargaining table: He needs the Republicans to give him something, anything, that he can claim as a victory. This need, however, perversely puts the Republicans in the situation where if they give him something, anything, it will be represented as a defeat. The president’s own weakness has had this perverse effect on his political opponents: it has reduced the value of his own concessions (no matter how big) and hugely exaggerated the significance of any offset he achieves (no matter how small).

I agree with all of the above except Frum’s bitter sigh at Obama’s “weakness.” Obama’s not in the strongest position to help his party out, but his need for concessions doesn’t make him weak. When you’re in the top spot, you have the most to lose.

[P.S. I put this post on the spike on Wednesday, prior to Obama’s announcement that sure, he’d be willing to cut some Social Security if it’d make the Opposition Party happy. Leaving the post as-is because I don’t think this changes the context. Whether the Ruling Party cuts benefits by adjusting the COLA or whether this is just, as the Administration’s biggest fans assert, Obama playing 11-dimensional chess, is irrelevant. Whether you would take to the streets if Social Security were touched or whether you want to dismantle the welfare state is irrelevant. What matters is that the fate of Social Security will be decided by people who, come age 65, would never notice its absence. Never forget where power is and what power wants.]