The whole debt ceiling thing seems to be winding up, as we knew it would, at the eleventh hour. Apparently Republicans are quite content to push the financial system to the brink of ruin, and endure partial slides in all markets, just to make an idiotic point. Even as the crisis terminates, let’s investigate what we’ve learned. Turns out, very little.
Senator Rubio’s (R-FL) speech on the debt ceiling apparently marks him as a future Republican leader: impassioned, well-informed, and with a coherent vision. I don’t see it. I see a well-spoken ideologue, true. But also a junior Senator clearly outclassed by a senior.
Justifying his party’s extremism, Rubio apparently takes solace in the fact that then-Senators Biden and Obama made speeches to similar effect the last time the debt ceiling came up. Both pledged to — and did — vote against an increase. But the difference, which Kerry appreciates and Rubio ignores, is that neither Obama nor Biden were party leaders at that time, and neither ever had the chance to actually force the issue. Their votes were symbolic, with little to no actual effect on policy. To the contrary, Republicans have allowed themselves to be ruled by their doctrine, without regard to any supervening responsibility.
What Biden and Obama did is appropriate backbencher behavior; but not appropriate majority behavior. You see, when a party comes into power, we generally expect responsibility to humble and mediate each individual member’s partisan impulses. Like Jeff Toobin observed about conservatives on the Supreme Court, it’s easy to talk about big doctrinal changes when in dissent, but comparatively rarer for the same Justice to, when given a chance, actually pull the trigger and initiate a sweeping legal change.
Republicans display no such restraint. And, more worryingly, they don’t appear to appreciate that they should. In unbroken line, from Bush to Boehner, Republicans have displayed no squeamishness about taking a mandate, no matter how small, and running as far right with it as absolutely possible. It’s divisive, bad for the country, unpatriotic, and counterproductive. Our politics isn’t really designed to accommodate such willful disregard of the middle. Whether acted out on the large- and the small-scale, this type of behavior has a way of eroding decency and tearing communities apart.
And as long as it continues, no matter how well Rubio speaks — without pause, break, or “um,” which is actually quite impressive — he’ll still look like an ideologue, and the bumbling Kerry will still, comparatively, look like a statesman.