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By Jose Antonio Rodriguez
“The Tea Party acted like terrorists in threatening to blow up the economy,” said Vice President Joe Biden, according to Politico, during a two-hour meeting with angry House Democrats. In a CBS interview, the Vice President denied using the “terrorism word”. Kendra Barkoff, Biden’s spokesperson, added further clarification: “The word was used by several members of Congress. The vice president does not believe it’s an appropriate term in political discourse.” The closed-door caucus meeting took place amidst the scramble to pass a deal to raise the debt limit before the August 2nd deadline, a deal that some Democrats called a “Satan sandwich”.
The perpetually thin-skinned Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska and John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate during the 2008 election, immediately took offense to the comment. “To be called a terrorist because of our beliefs from the vice president, it’s quite appalling, it’s quite vile,” she said during a Fox News interview. Of course, she herself is quite famous for casually throwing around the “terrorism word”. During the 2008 election, Palin famously accused then-Senator Barack Obama of “pallin’ around” with terrorists, a reference to the fact that Obama sat onChicagoeducation boards with a former member of the Weather Underground named Bill Ayers. Indeed, Palin resurrected those allegations, saying, “He didn’t have a problem palling around with Bill Ayers back in the day when he kicked off his political career in Bill Ayers’ apartment… You know, shaking hands with Chavez and saying he doesn’t need any preconditions with dictators… wanting to read U.S. Miranda rights to alleged, suspected foreign terrorists.” She added that, if she and her ilk were actually terrorists, “heck, shoot, President Obama would be wanting to pal around with us, wouldn’t he?”
It should be added that Paul O’Neil, a Treasury Secretary for President George W. Bush, made remarks similar to the ones that House Democrats made during the meeting with Vice President Biden: “[The] people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists. Really — they’re really putting our whole society at risk by threatening to round up 50 percent of the members of the Congress, who are loony, who would put our credit at risk.”
But how far off the mark are Paul O’Neil and the angry Democrats? Not that far.
The U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism as: “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” The TEA Party backed freshmen in the House, elected in 2010, have threatened to shut down the government and throw it into default. More recently, they have shut down the Federal Aviation Agency, resulting in the furlough of 74,000 people, the halting of about 200 construction jobs, and causing the federal government to lose out on roughly $30 million a day in revenue. In every instance, these TEA Party backed members of the House have held the American people hostage, threatening to inflict economic violence if their narrow political, ideological demands are not met. Their efforts have supporters in conservative corners and from the Facebook page of the former Mayor of Wasilla. “Don’t retreat,” Sarah Palin routinely reminds her supporters. “Reload.” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, had this to say about the tactics of the House Republicans: “If you hold one-half of one-third of the reins of power in Washington, and are willing to use and maintain that kind of discipline even if you will bring the entire temple down around your own head, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to get your way.”
This is not the first time our government has been threatened by right-wing zealots, however.
In the elections of 1994, Republicans took control of the House and Senate. Led by Newt Gingrich and motivated by his “Contract with America”—or, as Democrats termed it, the Contract on America—right-wing ideologues in Congress sought to reshape the government by gutting programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, and programs for the poor, such as Head Start, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Contract withAmerica also outlined an ambitious agenda, which included legislation for a balanced budget amendment and term limits. Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House, even threatened to not raise the debt ceiling. These right-wing freshmen were operating on two assumptions: (1) that the American people had provided them with an historic mandate to carry out their agenda and (2) that President Bill Clinton would cave in to their demands. After all, the American people just overwhelmingly swept the Republicans into power for the first time in over forty years. On the second point, they believed that President Clinton was politically weakened by scandals, which were manufactured by ultra-conservative Clinton-haters and fueled by a pliant media; they also believed that he was without convictions of any kind and lacked moral fortitude. By the end of 1995, they would be proved wrong on both fronts.
On the night of November 13, 1995, hours away from an impending government shut down, Republican leaders of Congress met with President Clinton in order to craft a last minute budget deal. Just a few days earlier, the Republican controlled Congress sent the President a budget that inflicted draconian cuts to entitlements and programs that millions of Americans depended upon. They also sent him a bill to raise the debt ceiling for another thirty days. The President, much to the surprise of the Republican leadership, vetoed both bills. During the tense, last minute negotiations in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Speaker Gingrich made conciliatory statements, while the zealous Dick Armey (now the leader of the TEA Party group Freedomworks) verbally attacked the President. Armey accused the President of fear-mongering, saying that he “could hardly get” his mother-in-law “into a nursing home, you guys have scared her so much.” President Clinton, who still nursed resentment over Armey’s claim that Hillary Clinton was a Marxist, lashed out at Armey: “I don’t know about your mother-in-law, but let me tell you, there are a lot of older women who are going to do pretty darn bad under your budget.” The President was feeling his blood boil. “So don’t expect any pity from me.” Armey, in a moment of petulance, retorted that the Republicans would shut down the government and effectively endClinton’s presidency. “If you want to pass your budget,” the President said with a glance to Bob Dole, who was planning to run for the presidency in 1996, “you will have to put somebody else in this chair!” As if to signal that the meeting was now over, the President declared that he didn’t “care if I go to five percent in the polls. I am not going to sign your budget. It is wrong. It is wrong for the country.”
At midnight, the government shut down began. Nearly 800,000 federal employees were furloughed and the lives of millions of Americans were inconvenienced. In order to prevent default, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin borrowed $61 billion from retirement funds and employed some financial gimmicks, a move that elicited cries for his impeachment from Republicans who preferred that the country be thrown into default. Briefly, the government shut down ended, and it appeared that there would be a budget deal. But the Republican lead Congress continued to send the President bills that unnecessarily inflicted economic pain on the most vulnerable Americans. So, it was not to be, and the government was shut down for a second time. The American people were angry. The poll numbers for Republicans (and Gingrich in particular) plummeted, while the President’s poll numbers skyrocketed. In some polls, his numbers were almost 70% among likely voters over the age of 50. The American people rejected the extremism of the right-wing ideologues and supported President Clinton’s defense of programs that helped millions of Americans keep their heads above water. They rewarded him for not caving in to the demands of over-zealous Republicans, who were holding the American people and the economy hostage. In early January 1996, a contrite Gingrich apologized toClinton, saying, “We made a mistake. We thought you would cave.” On January 6, the government was back in business.
It is difficult not to look back over the last year and see that President Obama has, time and time again, been rolled by House Republicans, lead by Speaker of the House John Boehner. He has caved in to the demands of the TEA-orists, who have threatened to wreak economic violence if their demands are not met. In the wake of the recent debt limit deal, Speaker Boehner has boasted that he got 98% of what he wanted. Emboldened, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hinted that his party would continue the tactics that have allowed them to cut spending and risk government default. “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this— it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming.” The deal allows the debt ceiling to be raised until early 2013, but it cuts nearly a trillion dollars in discretionary spending over the next ten years and creates a bipartisan committee, which will be tasked with cutting an additional 1.5 trillion dollars. The TEA Partiers have thrown sanity into the wind. Though they brought the nation to the brink of economic devastation, many refused to vote for the deal that provided them with virtually everything they wanted and virtually nothing that the President wanted. These are people who will not take yes for an answer.
Not everyone is thrilled about the deal. Obviously, Democrats are enraged. Some progressive groups, such as MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are threatening to withhold support for the President’s 2012 campaign. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, has described the debt deal as an economic “disaster”, warning that it will make our deficit problem worse and “takeAmericaa long way down the road to banana-republic status.” Lawrence Summers, a former economic advisor to President Obama, said that there is a “one in three chance” that there will be a double-dip recession. Standard & Poor, a major credit rating agency, has also responded to the debt deal by downgradingAmerica’s top credit rating. In a statement following the downgrade, S&P cited a dysfunctional political system and a failure to produce a credible, balanced plan. “The majority of Republicans in Congress,” a representative from S&P said, “continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.” The American people, according to recent polls, also strongly dislike the deal. According to a CNN poll, 52% of Americans disapprove of the debt deal. The poll also found that three out of four Americans would describe elected officials as “spoiled children”. A New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, has Congress’s approval rating at a dismal 14%. Speaker Boehner’s disapproval rating is at 57%, ten points higher than the President’s. Public approval of the TEA Party is at a mere 20%. There are signs of hope for the White House in the polls, however. According to the latter poll, the American people trust President Obama over the Republicans with economic issues. They also blame Republicans for the crisis, believing that they refused to compromise. Despite all the drama, President Obama still stands with a 48% approval rating.
At some point, President Obama is going to have to take a stand and draw a line in the sand. During the debt ceiling negotiations, he warned Rep. Eric Cantor: “Don’t call my bluff.” Yet, when they called his bluff, President Obama caved. In 1995, President Clinton demonstrated that he had conviction and moral fortitude. He held firm, risking his political career, and refused to be rolled by the right-wing zealots who were trying to gut government programs and remake the country in their image. When the dust settled, President Clinton not only succeeded in his 1996 election, but his fiscal discipline resulted in a balanced budget and a projected surplus in the trillions of dollars. Today, President Obama faces an equally fanatical and nihilistic group of TEA Party backed Republican freshmen who are willing to blow up the economy. Unfortunately, the TEA-orists have learned that they can get their way if they take hostages. This is a fundamental fight for the future of our country. President Obama needs to decide if he has the conviction to risk his poll numbers and his Presidency in order to preserve our way of life and win the future.