Tilly: Dishonesty, hypocrisy, and the College Republicans

BY ZACH TILLY | OCTOBER 23, 2013 5:00 AM

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In their guest opinion Monday, the UI College Republicans accused me of being a lot of things: a “far-left” Democrat, a mortgager of “our children’s future,” an intellectually dishonest and “logically inconsistent” writer, and a peddler of empty rhetoric. Above all, the College Republicans took issue with my characterization (in a Sept. 30 column) of the debt ceiling standoff as Republican hostage-taking. They argued that because Joe Biden and many Democrats were once opposed to raising the debt ceiling that I (as an alleged Democratic shill) was being hypocritical and “logically inconsistent” in deriding Republicans this time around.

Two things: First, that’s a really strange argument. Second, they seem to have glossed over my Oct. 9 column in which I argued that the debt ceiling standoff was just a slightly escalated, more explicit version of past debt ceiling fights instigated by both parties. My conclusion was that it’s irresponsible for anybody — Democrats or Republicans — to use the threat of default as leverage for extracting concessions. That I didn’t mention Biden specifically was mostly a product of my distaste for bizarre nonsequiturs.

I argued that debt ceiling threats are a fundamentally illegitimate negotiating tactic, but the assumption underlying the College Republicans’ argument was that the shutdown/debt ceiling standoff was simply another policymaking tool in the GOP’s chest. That’s why I thought the Democratic unwillingness to negotiate with the House Republicans was appropriate and why the College Republicans thought it represented a refusal to make a tough deal on Obamacare and the federal budget. At some point Congress will have to make some politically tough decisions to stabilize the country’s long-term fiscal outlook, which is kind of bleak considering health-care costs are still rising faster than inflation, and the population is still aging rapidly. But we’ve got some time to make a decent deal in a less chaotic context — the Congressional Budget Office projects that deficits will be relatively low for the next few years before they begin to rise again toward the end of the decade.

We also fundamentally disagree about what would constitute a decent deal. The College Republicans claimed that the ideal endgame in the shutdown fight would have been a balanced budget or a substantial step toward one. That may have been true, but I take exception to the idea presented as fait accompli by the Republicans that balancing the budget is intrinsically good policy. The current debt track is probably unsustainable, yes, but the reduction in government spending required to balance the budget would come at the cost of slowing or reversing economic growth. The negative economic impact of sequestration in the U.S. and austerity in Europe is well documented.

A more responsible policy package would make incremental changes to entitlement programs — chained CPI for Social Security, means-testing Medicare, etc. — to stabilize the long-term debt-to-GDP ratio rather than tank the economy in pursuit of a balanced-budget pipe dream. An unbalanced budget is not a moral failure and a failure to support a balanced budget is not, as the College Republicans suggest, tantamount to “mortgaging our children’s future.” For what it’s worth, that’s a pretty hacky rhetorical trick coming from a group that implored me to “make claims based on factual considerations, not empty rhetorical brinkmanship.”

Speaking of factual considerations, let’s get a few other things straight while we’re at it. First, there was nothing “supposed” about the economic impact a default would have had on the economy, as the Republicans insinuated. It would have been a disaster — the U.S. debt would have been downgraded, interest rates would have risen, credit markets would have seized up, aggregate demand would have fallen, and the economy would have contracted.

Second, the College Republicans falsely attributed to me a number of labels and views, mostly by association to the Democratic Party, a party to which I feel no particular connection or loyalty. The truth is that I want to like the College Republicans — I’m sympathetic to plenty of traditionally Republican ideas that they should be talking about: lower corporate taxes, entitlement tweaks, protecting civil liberties. Sounds great.

But these guys don’t seem to care about appealing to a wide audience with good ideas — they opt instead for cattily defending the party’s talking points. Even as they cried crocodile tears and claimed to be “thoroughly disappointed” by my intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical bloviating, they couldn’t resist tossing in a dig about Democratic inaction that reads like something one might find in a chain email from grandma. “But then again,” they mused in phony exasperation, “when has a Democrat ever done serious work?”

And they said civil discourse was dead.

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