The debate over raising the national debt ceiling is a manufactured crisis, a war of choice that may do more to disillusion people about the sufficiency of the two-party system than any event in a long time. The storyline is easy to understand: the nation approaches a traumatic crisis -- defaulting on its debt obligations -- while the officeholding leaders of the two major parties play what is almost universally described as a game of chicken. There is no good spin to put on the spectacle unless you are a true believer in one of the parties. It's either a doomsday scenario of ideological fanaticism or a cynical dance for electoral advantage. Unfortunately, the nation governs with the people it elected, not the people it needs. A majority of those Americans who bothered voting chose President Obama, and people in a majority of congressional districts chose Republican representatives. Each branch has the prerogative to insist on its priorities, and neither has a legal obligation to compromise before victory. Objectively speaking, I could argue that the ultimate burden of compromise lies with the Republicans because of their intransigence on taxes, but they can claim a mandate from last November to hold out as long as possible and require Democrats to give in. But continued Democratic control of the Senate limits Republicans' power to dictate. They're really depending on the President and Democratic leaders to crack -- perhaps presuming liberals to lack willpower equal to their own. But there are enough crackpots in GOP ranks who seem willing to risk default to create doubt that their side will crack in time.
Here's a layman's modest proposal for compromise, beginning from the assumption that Republicans can't be coerced into submission the way some might like. Compromise will require some deference to current Republican priorities while holding them to their long-term commitment to debt reduction. They oppose tax increases, and even the closing of existing loopholes, on the instrumental ground that continued low taxes will result in greater revenue from an economy stimulated the "right" way by letting people keep their money. Deference to their two-year mandate obliges the opposition to let them try -- and fail. But surrender shouldn't be unconditional. Since leaders are after a multi-stage debt-reduction plan, the first stage should be understood as an ultimate test of Republican supply-side premises. Democrats should make it clear that they'll give Republicans a chance for their magic to work, and that if low taxes don't have the predicted results -- if the entrepreneurial gods don't rain jobs upon the populace and make up deficits with increased revenue from increased profits -- tax increases will be automatic to make up the shortfall. In short, an ideal compromise should delay tax increases for a year or two and do without them entirely should Republican policies actually work, but require increases unless certain targets are met. If Republicans are confident of the efficacy of low-tax policies they should readily accept these terms. If not, they'll further expose themselves as taxophobic fanatics whose dogmas have priority over the public good. Unless Democrats are convinced, for practical or ideological reasons, that tax increases are an immediate imperative, they'd have little to lose by making this offer if they believe their own propaganda against supply-sidism. There is no avoiding austerity in the short term, and no avoiding Republican power today. But a compromise should be possible that would allow Republicans a feeling of accomplishment now while planting the seeds of a comeuppance later. This kind of compromise ought also to appeal to ranks and files across party lines, leaving aside the taxophobic absolutists and the dead-enders who refuse to envision any austerity, and might even, in a better among possible worlds, form the basis of a trans-partisan consensus. But I thought I'd try it on blog readers first.