Imagine that a family is on vacation and driving through unfamiliar territory, which tends to make people uncomfortable, which leads to disagreements.
Mom and Dad are in the front seat, arguing – first about where they are, and then, inevitably in this particular family, whose fault it is that they are lost. They’re no longer consulting the map. In fact, Dad’s not even looking at the road. He’s looking at Mom as they both recount all the mistakes, real and perceived, that led them to this place in their vacation and in their marriage.
The kids in the back seat are accustomed to this, but this time one notices that Dad has completely lost his focus. In fact, the car is veering on and off the shoulder in the same stretch where a cliff runs parallel to the highway. "Dad!" he says.
"Not now, Son," his dad yells, and returns to the argument. Because, you know, it’s really important who’s at fault here.
That’s what it feels like is happening in Washington, D.C. The United States has reached an unfamiliar place – a place where it feels like the country is slipping, and there’s genuine disagreement about what to do about it.
Meanwhile, the nation has entered a presidential second term, which means, for whatever reason, that it’s time to take the focus off the country’s path and place it squarely on a scandal. Nixon and Watergate. Reagan and Iran-contra. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Bush and the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And now Obama and Benghazi/IRS/Associated Press.
It happens, I guess inevitably, somewhere in that second term after the excitement of the election wears off. This time, you can almost see the relief in Washington that we can stop talking about all of this boring budget stuff – you know, debt limits and fiscal cliffs and sequesters – and get back to normal politics.
This is not to discount the importance of Benghazi/IRS/AP, all of which demand a complete explanation from the Obama administration, a statesmanlike examination by members of Congress, and thorough, impartial coverage by the media.
But I don’t think we’re going to get all that. It looks like we’re here again, arguing and fighting at the beginning of a second term and pretty much guaranteeing that we’ll put off talking about the national debt, as usual.
You remember the national debt, right? It’s about $17 trillion now, well more than $50,000 for every American man, woman and child. It’s temporarily growing a little slower than it has the past four years, but it’s still growing rapidly, and not long from now it will grow faster again.
There’s no plan to do much about it in Washington. In fact, there’s not even serious talk among elected officials about making that plan. And now that we’re into the second term scandals, there probably won’t be.
What’s needed is for the president and Congress to have a long, difficult discussion about how the U.S. government can stop spending money it does not have, but that’s not going to happen for a long time. Instead we can look forward to months of hearings, to congressional expressions of outrage, to parsed presidential statements, to the rest of President Obama’s hair turning gray, to people getting fired. Before long, it will be time for the 2014 elections, and then we’ll be talking about 2016, and soon another four years will have passed and the debt will be that much greater.
It’s probably going to take a crisis to get Washington’s eyes back on the road. Eventually, interest rates will start to rise, and all of this historically cheap borrowed money will become exponentially more expensive. The nation’s creditors – including, for example, the Communist Party of China – will reach a point where they stop assuring themselves that Uncle Sam is still the safest investment in the world. And then, like that family, we’ll start heading over a cliff.
Does it have to be this way? Could the U.S. government still function the way it was designed? Could Congress ask hard questions about Benghazi/IRS/AP while still asking harder questions about the nation’s fiscal future? Could the president answer those questions – about the scandals and the budget – transparently? Regardless of whatever political song and dance they feel they must do in front of the cameras, could the nation’s elected officials meet behind closed doors and govern this country responsibly? Could somebody take the wheel?
It would be nice. There are kids in the back seat, after all.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.