It's not that this wonderful land of ours has never known political fracases. A war that took place midway through the 19th century comes to mind. There was also, years later, if memory serves, an upheaval known as the New Deal, during whose course all manner of head-butting took place.
The redeeming feature of knockdown-drag-outs, by whomsoever initiated and howsoever decided, is that they focus attention on matters too urgent to be laid aside for future contemplation. In which category is the debt-ceiling brawl. It's like a family intervention over Dad's unseemly craving for Old Grand-Dad. The music has got to be faced.
The tune playing on the national Muzak for some decades is, ironically, that old Depression-era favorite, "We're in the money, Come on my honey, Let's spend it, lend it, send it, rolling along."
"How'd we get here?" is the question whose answer is, "Big Government, playing to our appetites."
"Big Government" long since became a political cliche—a standard substitute for the kind of thinking that might have identified and addressed the problem at its source. "Big Government" means government that helps everybody by spending money that belongs to nobody. Nobody in particular, anyway. We all put some in the pot, otherwise known as the Treasury. Who knows where it gets spent? Who can begin to imagine? "Big Government" means, accordingly, the evasion of responsibility: the ducking of duty to taxpayers.
The problem America remains unable to face—witness the current meat-cleaver massacre of cooperation in Washington—is how not just to get past the current wrangle over the debt ceiling, but to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again anytime soon.
The only way to make sure it doesn't reoccur is to follow more or less the House's passionate inclination and inform, most of all, the White House that we're NOW going to stop spending money we haven't got.
This makes for, in the oddest kind of way, a wonderful moment, a delicious one. One that's been too long in coming. To paraphrase the unexceptionable motto of Rahm Emanuel, we can't let this crisis go to waste.
Big Government and fiscal integrity aren't merely strange bedfellows. Eventually, though it takes time, as in our own country's experience, they become the political equivalent of Bordeaux and peanut-butter sandwiches. The sheer bigness of Big Government decrees this outcome. The more Government does, the more it gets called on to do. The more it accepts the call, the more heedless it becomes of apparent trivialities such as cost.
The debate over the size of government is one Americans have been trying to have since the Reagan years, rarely succeeding, in that the crisis was not quite bad enough. We can't make that claim anymore. Don't we suppose the Greeks—who are broke—are having such a debate? They are talking of nothing else.
Here we come now, animated by the same concerns as the Greeks and Portuguese and Spanish and Irish and Italians over what was once generally known as improvidence.
The question is: How well are we prepared to let the federal government absorb 25 percent of our economic output, not to mention the 40 or 50 percent that lies in our collective future unless the brakes are applied fast and hard?
That's what the whole unappealing, unappetizing debate is about in the end—how hard to hit the brakes so the private sector of the economy, instead of for once the public sector, can start growing again, creating jobs and prosperity.
A crisis indeed is a terrible thing to waste. Our finger-pointing, perpetually annoyed president, who loves Big Government so much he's worked to make it bigger ever since taking office, agrees with the Emanuel maxim, sort of. He just wants to define the crisis himself. The tea party Republicans and their allies won't let him, and that explains the sound and fury, and, well, isn't it all in a grim way kind of wonderful?
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William Murchison is a corresponding editor of Chronicles and the author of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (ISI) and Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity. William Murchison, syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on religious, cultural, and political affairs, has contributed to many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.