Failed People, Failed State

President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he participates in a bill signing ceremony for the ‘Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act’ in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., January 9, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into your bond rating.

If we could set aside, for a moment, the moronic parlor game of, “Oh, isn’t Trump awful? / Aren’t the Democrats awful?” here is a summary of where things stand: President Trump and the Democratic leadership in Congress are acting as mirror images of each another, with the Democrats shutting down the government in order to inflict an almost purely symbolic defeat on the president for no purpose other than to humiliate him, and the president doing his reciprocal part in the quest for a political victory that would be almost as meaningless.

Almost, but not quite: Nobody in Washington takes seriously the proposition that a border wall is “immoral,” as the Democrats have said. We already have walls along the border, no one is proposing to pull them down, and they have performed a useful function in helping to control illegal border crossings. These are not seriously disputed facts. The notion of a point-to-point towering concrete wall stretching from Brownsville to San Diego always has been an absurdity, as indeed is the prospect of even a more modest barrier, perhaps something on the order of the one surrounding the wealthy and once racially restricted Presidio Terrace neighborhood that has been over the years home to Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, stretching the entire length of the border. But barriers have a role to play in securing parts of the border, and seeing to the physical security of the country is the federal government’s first job.

That being written, new border barriers probably are not going to have a radical impact on illegal immigration or drug smuggling. Most new illegal immigrants — like most of the drugs coming across the southern border — move through ports of entry. Most of the fentanyl entering the country apparently comes through the mail from China. But a policy does not need to be earth-shattering in its implications to represent an intelligent step in the right direction. Physically securing the southern border was understood to be a valuable if not dispositive reform until it became the shiny prize in the mud-wrestling match currently underway in Washington.

The president is not wrong to be insistent about this, nor is he wrong to take extraordinary measures to see to it. You may disagree with that position — and that would not necessarily be unreasonable. Perhaps we could agree on this: The fact that trying to get the federal government to perform its fundamental duties has sent the government into its current convulsion is evidence of a dysfunction in the American system that is not uniquely related to the current leadership of either the executive or the legislative branch. In fact, that is the best argument against treating the current situation as an “emergency” at all — the federal government’s failure here goes back 50 years or more.

Fitch, the credit-ratings agency, can be a bit of a scold, but its analysts are not wrong to detect something amiss in American governance, nor are they wrong in their current mild skepticism regarding the U.S. government’s coveted triple-A bond rating. “If this shutdown continues to March 1 and the debt ceiling becomes a problem several months later, we may need to start thinking about the policy framework, the inability to pass a budget, and whether all of that is consistent with triple-A,” James McCormack, Fitch’s sovereign-ratings boss, told Reuters. From Fitch’s point of view, he said, the debt-ceiling issue is the more troubling.

Too much probably is made of both shutdowns such as the current one and the current debt-ceiling fights. These are political leverage points, and the exploitation of them is inevitable in the U.S. political system’s current mode of procedural maximalism, and that procedural maximalism itself points to the deeper problem touching the long-term “policy framework” and “the inability to pass a budget.” To fight over whether this is a good budget or that is a good budget is one thing — the inability to pass a budget at all is something else.

Writing on the Corner, Wesley J. Smith lamented the decline of political discourse, writing: “After watching President Trump and the responses by Senate minority leader Schumer and House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, I was struck at the pronounced inability of our current political leadership to engage the population and change minds through the use of persuasive speech.” But the problem is not that President Trump and Senator Schumer do not know how to tell Americans what they want to hear. The problem is that what Americans want to hear is . . . this.

NOW WATCH: ‘Trump’s Border Wall Address’

Catharsis, emotional validation, the litigation of sundry tribal and class disputes, symbolic cultural totems — this, and not a convenient means of undertaking the ordinary business of seeing to the joint interests that the several states cannot easily see to themselves, is what the American people currently look to their federal government to provide. Diabetics are prone to terrible infections in their extremities, but the locus of their disease is elsewhere. The source of the American sickness is not in Washington.

Neither is the cure.

Washington will get back to the ordinary business of budgets and border patrols just as soon as we are ready for it to. Fitch is looking into our creditworthiness. Looking into that other and more consequential thing is our duty and ours alone.


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