There is a dismaying symmetry about the debt-limit controversy. Today’s Left creates phony crises to rationalize action on its radically transformative program; today’s Right creates phony rationalizations to avoid addressing actual crises. Incrementally, yesterday’s radicalism becomes today’s norm.
The Right talks a good game about small government, constitutional government. But that is all it is: talk. When it gets down to brass tacks, like now, with our nation sinking into a death spiral of unsustainable, incalculable debt, the Right’s solution is to grow government while trusting that government will constrain government — at some future date, of course. And when someone has the temerity to say, “No, enough,” mainstream Republicans, aided by some in the conservative commentariat, are as quick as the Obama Left to marginalize that someone as an “extremist.”
So it was that Sen. John McCain, the very model of a progressive Rockefeller Republican, lambasted a surging GOP presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann, for her uncompromising stance on the debt ceiling. By McCain’s Big Gummint lights, Bachmann is an extremist for refusing to indulge the notion that we should inflate by $2,500,000,000,000 (that’s not a typo) the credit line of a bankrupt nation that is officially
$14,300,000,000,000 in the hole. (The true debt is more like $130,000,000,000,000 if we look beyond Uncle Sam’s Enronesque accounting practices.) And mind you, the $2.5 tril is just what’s necessary to get us through President Obama’s reelection, McCain’s 2008 campaign having already done its bit to ensure Obama’s election. Once the president’s second term is won, there would be nothing but trillions more in debt and debt-ceiling raises until, sooner rather than later, creditors stop the music and the country collapses.
Ironically, McCain’s manner of helping Obama this time is to frame Bachmann as Obama. As a senator running for president (which is pretty much all he did as a senator), Obama was famously intransigent in 2006, when Pres. George W. Bush sought an increase in the debt ceiling in order to finance the metastasizing welfare state wrought by insatiable leftist Democrats and Republican statists such as McCain. So now, McCain says Bachmann sounds like Obama, because she insists that the debt limit oughtn’t be raised by a dime. She needs to get with the program and agree to the borrowing of more trillions today in exchange for the promise of spending cuts . . . someday, no doubt the same day that fence gets built on the Mexican border.
But there is a huge difference. Senator Obama’s objection was crass political opportunism. He is as radical a redistributionist as has ever held high elected office in the United States, and his only real problem with Bush’s exorbitant spending and entitlement expansion is that they weren’t nearly enough for his tastes. When it came time to pay the freight — when it was certain the ceiling would be raised, so a nay vote made no practical difference — Senator Obama caviled about how bumping the debt limit signaled a failure of presidential leadership. His speech is so comically cynical in light of the last three years that it can’t be repeated often enough:
The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies . . . Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.
On March 20, 2006, when Obama performed this little soliloquy, Congress raised the debt ceiling from a little over $8 trillion to a little under $9 trillion. The move epitomized an orgy of government profligacy, responsible ultimately for the electoral routs that cost Republicans control of Congress and the White House. For all its outrageousness, though, the Bush-era binge doesn’t hold a candle to what followed.
In the five years since Obama’s Senate speech, the Democrats he leads have raised the debt ceiling by almost $5.5 trillion. To get a sense of what that means, it took over two centuries — from the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 until 1998 — for the United States to accumulate $5.5 trillion in debt. There has been a debt ceiling only since 1917 (and its current configuration did not take shape until 1939), but even by that shorter measuring stick, it took almost 80 years (i.e., until 1996) to bump up against a debt ceiling of $5.5 trillion. Obama has doubled that unfathomable amount in the blink of an eye.
And it’s not enough. It will never be enough. President Obama wants to add $2.5 trillion to our tapped-out credit card because, at the rocket speed of government borrowing, that is the minimum needed to get him through the election without any additional debt-limit crises. Such episodes would only call more attention to his promised “fundamental transformation” of the U.S. economy. If he gets his way on the debt ceiling and then wins a second term, that $2.5 trillion will be chump change: It will be impossible to calculate the additional trillions confiscated from the producers, the young, and the unborn for redistribution to Leviathan’s clientele of cronies, unionized bureaucrats, and subsidized sloth.