When I heard that the president was making a speech this evening, naturally I made plans to watch it. After all, our nation is at a crossroads--either we will figure out a way to work together and pass a debt ceiling increase, or we'll be forced into default or government shutdown. I wanted to know what the president had to say at this critical juncture. Now, having listened to his speech, and John Boehner's response, I am left with the same question that is on the lips of every American: why on earth did I bother?
The speech contained no new information. It didn't even include new verbiage. We got the complaints about accelerated depreciation for corporate jets, which could close as much as $2 billion of the $8 trillion or so worth of deficit spending we'll be doing between now and 2021. The puzzling assertion was repeated that we need "millionaires and billionaires" to do their part; apparently, the "millionaire" category now begins at a household income of $250,000 a year for a married couple filing jointly. Once again, we were treated to Obama's selfless willingness to pay more taxes to fund the government that is going to make him a rich, rich man after he leaves office. And the touchingly stated faith that these "patriotic Americans" will do their duty and chip in for a "balanced approach", as they have before. The only new item, as far as I know, was a pretty decent Reagan quote that led off the speech.
So why this urgent press conference?
Coupled with Boehner's rebuttal, the most plausible explanation to my mind is also the most troubling: both sides have given up making a deal, and are now just working on fixing the blame. Boehner's performance was uncharacteristically forceful, and even displayed a few flashes of personality, which was a nice change from his usual studied blandness. But personal entertainment aside, this is not the moment when I really wanted to see John Boehner spontaneously generate a backbone. He wasn't trying to explain his position to a curious public; he was trying to justify the unjustifiable decision to risk the US credit rating rather than agree to a deal that Democrats could also live with.
Obama, meanwhile, seemed to be going out of his way to isolate Boehner from his more militant caucus members--praising Boehner's willingness to cut a deal, if only it weren't for the crazies on the far right. Perhaps this makes Obama look like a nice guy to people who do't understand the GOP intra-party dynamics, but of course, it poisons an already poisonous relationship between Boehner and the tea-partiers. If I were feeling uncharitable, I might argue that Obama seems to be willing to lower the chances of getting a deal, as long as he raises the chances that the other guys get the blame. And frankly, I'm not feeling very charitable right now.
But I'm not even sure what the point of blaming each other is; the public already seems to know who they're going to blame, and mostly, it's the GOP. Desperate GOP spinning is probably not going to much change this (and yes, I know all the GOP arguments about why this is unfair, and even think that in some cases they're right. Doesn't matter. The PR battle is already lost.) On the other side, twisting the knife just makes a deal less likely, for not much electoral gain. And I can't quite bring myself to believe that Obama is deliberately trying to foment a crisis because it will redound to his party's electoral advantage. Was it really worth pre-empting shows that people were willing to watch voluntarily?
There's an old Soviet joke that a friend once told me. An old man has been standing in line for bread for eight hours. His feet hurt, his back hurts, and he is faint from hunger. Finally, finally the door opens and the baker comes out. He starts to salivate. He fingers the rubles in his pocket.
"Comrades, go home," says the baker. "There is no flour to make bread today."
Something in the old man snaps. He has been waiting in these lines for decades, and he has had enough. "This is ridiculous!" he shouts. "I fought in the Great Patriotic War! I worked for forty years in the factory! Now you make me wait in line for eight hours when there's no flour? You didn't know this eight hours ago? I spit on you, and I spit on the regime!" And he spits in front of the baker.
A man steps out of line behind him. "Careful, comrade. You know how it would have been in the old days if you had said these things." With his thumb and forefinger, he mimes a gun being fired at the temple.
Defeated, the man steps out of line and trudges home with everyone else. He goes into his apartment and sits down at the table. His wife walks in just as he pours the last of his vodka into a glass, and drinks it down in one gulp.
"Sergei, what's wrong?!" she cries, seeing the look on his face. "Don't tell me they're out of bread!"
"It's worse than that. Much worse." he says heavily.
"What could be worse?"
"They're out of bullets."
That was what I kept thinking about as I watched tonight's speeches. These guys are out of ammunition. They don't even have any good arguments left to fire at each other. Which I think means we're hosed.
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is a columnist at Bloomberg View
and a former senior editor at The Atlantic.
Her new book is The Up Side of Down