The Debt Ceiling Fight Was Not as Bad as an Actual War

Pundits are congratulating the country on the lack of bloodshed in Congress

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The cliche As passage of a bill to raise the debt ceiling became assured today, journalists took a long look at the past weeks of media upheaval. Alongside their sighs of relief came a common thread -- seeking to put the partisan rancor in perspective. In the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman said he would spend the month re-reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which details the outbreak of World War I. "It is a reminder that other Augusts in Europe have seen events that really do merit overused words like tragedy and crisis. By comparison, some conniptions in the US Congress seems like pretty mild stuff." The Washington Post's Dana Milbank declared, "The debt deal: Better than canings and civil war! It was an unusual sales pitch, but it was about the best thing a Democrat could say about the compromise that ended the default standoff." He was referring of course to Harry Reid's comparison of the debt crisis to the Civil War. "What we have gone through was extremely difficult but there was never any consideration the republic would fall," he said. The takeaway of the day: the debt ceiling fight was not as bad as an actual war.

Where it's from: This new trend springs from a much more pervasive habit: comparing the debt ceiling crisis to war in the first place. Of course, comparing any argument between two factions to human warfare is and has long been an obvious metaphor. But just a glance through today's opinion pages shows the new heights of prominence it reached with the debt ceiling crisis. Joe Nocera titled his New York Times column "The Tea Party's War on America," and wrote, "These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people." The Washington Post described the brief era of bipartisan sentiment in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords "a brief respite that soon passed as Congress dove into six straight months of warfare over federal budgets." And the Financial Times described the next round of cuts in the debt ceiling compromise as "a new round of fiscal warfare."

Why it's catching on: Most immediately, in light of all the warfare metaphors running rampant, it's no wonder today's pundits found it necessary to remind us that congressmen did not actually fight a violent war against one another. And, for the past few weeks, serious financial consequences have seemed ever more likely. Given that the endgame ended up avoiding that result, it makes sense that commentators would suggest that, in retrospect, this was all overblown in the first place. Warfare serves as an immediate and unarguable example of "things that are worse than this" which made it an attractive way to make that point.

Why else?  Jonah Goldberg at the National Review lambasted the liberal tendency to compare Tea Partiers to terrorists, hostage-takers, or hijackers, calling it inappropriate for Joe Biden to make the comparison on the same day Gabrielle Giffords reminded us all of the consequences of real terrorism. The debt ceiling, in comparison, is only "supposedly an Armageddon-level issue." Whether it be terrorism, famine, or warfare itself, critics are all trying to change the story in the aftermath to issues they feel a more deserving of coverage than what many have called a "manufactured crisis."

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