Financial default aside, another kind of default has already taken place

Financial default aside, another kind of default has already taken place

Last night I attended a dinner of old Washington hands. Some had served in high government offices, some were lobbyists, some were think tankers, some were still running for office, others were active in campaigns of one sort or another.  These were seasoned players who had seen it all … and there was fear and outrage in their eyes.

They felt the leaders of both parties had lost any sense of accountability. They were appalled by the degree to which, at a moment of national crisis, twisted notions of ideological purity and cynical politics had obliterated any focus on solving the problems at hand, on public service. Whether or not the country averts fiscal default, that we had come to this point was a sign to all that a leadership default had already taken place.

This was a bipartisan group and their disgust was equally distributed among Democrats and Republicans — although it must be said that, in spite of that, there was a sense that in recent days President Obama and Speaker Boehner had both shown a healthy willingness to seek compromise and to resist the extremists in their parties.

We had a lively discussion around a small square table, and the political scientists among us provided data that underscored the unprecedented nature of the partisan divide in America today, while others offered polling results that hinted at the appetite of the American people for more political choices than are available today.

But nothing captured the sense of this room and the moment in which we are living than a comment made by the youngest participant in the room. He was a former Marine officer who had done five tours of duty. He told a story of how, not too long ago, at a firebase near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan, troops started seeing email traffic about what might happen if the government ran out of money. The advice they were receiving was that it was possible they would not be paid and that while government employees back home might not go to work, they would be left to their own devices — there, on the edge of nowhere, at risk for their lives.

That’s what playing chicken with the debt ceiling does. It sends a message to troops who are putting their lives on the line every day for their country that politicians in Washington wouldn’t risk political discomfort to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.

Of course, it does more than that. In a world in which most major economies are currently at risk it takes one of the most dangerous economic situations the planet has ever seen and it makes it much worse.  Somehow the Eric Cantors of this world have lost all sense of context or consequences or their most basic responsibilities. They act as though they think the final metrics for their experiments in dereliction of duty will be a vote count rather than lost jobs and shattered fortunes.

The world economy is a house of cards right now. That’s not an exaggeration. A crisis in Italy or Spain or the U.S. or China or Brazil or Japan could be enough to tip the others toward recession or worse, to drive global interest rates upward, to dry up pools of capital, to crush markets. And with long-term, structural solutions proving elusive everywhere, it is likely we are entering a period of prolonged fragility, heightened risk, and protracted suffering.

This is all so large. And the men and women who have let political expediency and personal ambition get in the way of genuine solutions are, with each day, proving themselves smaller and smaller.  It’s precisely the kind of situation that one can only hope will trigger much more fundamental changes — and not just economic ones either. If this kind of irresponsibility is the best the two political parties we have can do, then perhaps it is time they get some competition.