Are Americans getting to the point where they've got "crisis fatigue" and just want to shut out the neverending economic hostage-taking in Washington? I have to admit, I don't have the answer to that question, which means that this is likely going to be a very short column.
Since the election of 2010, Republicans have been playing brinksmanship with the budgetary process so often, we may be fast approaching the state where the public is so tired of the bickering in Congress that they just tune it out altogether. We've had multiple showdowns over the debt ceiling, we've had multiple showdowns over continuing resolutions and shutting the government down, we've had multiple "grand bargains" fall apart, we've had one super committee, we've had one fiscal cliff, and now we face a sequester. What's next? A partridge in a pear tree?
Each iteration is presented to the public as a full-blown economic crisis. Which, to be sure, they all have threatened. I'm not accusing anyone of exaggeration, here. I'm merely pointing out that human beings cannot live in a state of crisis all the time. At some point, the adrenaline shuts down and you enter a fugue state where you just kind of shrug and say: "Eh, another economic doomsday next Tuesday? Whatever. What's on teevee tonight?"
Again, I'm not trying to make light of our situation, or even any of the past crises we've so far faced. And I can't even really put it in perspective all that much. The federal budget is a yearly affair, which means D.C. budget battles are an annual event, even in the best of times. They are often hard-fought. Deadlines often are not met. Howling over temporary continuing resolutions is all part of the process. But it wasn't really until Newt Gingrich got into it with Bill Clinton that anyone really believed one party would use the equivalent of nuclear weapons in the (previously) limited warfare of budget negotiations.
Since the Tea Party came to town, this has been standard operating procedure. This is what's changed, and (once again) I don't mean to make light of it at all. And I certainly can't fault the full-court press the Obama administration is making in the media right now on what will happen if the sequester really does take place. They're actually doing an excellent job of getting their message out -- which has not always been the case for them. They're also tailoring their message in a very intelligent way -- hitting Republicans on military spending cuts, which is where Republicans are most vulnerable among their own base. The Obama administration has owned the entire field in the media this week precisely because Congress is on vacation for the entire week, so they brought this media blitz on themselves, by not doing the job we're supposedly paying them to do.
But even though I'm glad to see Obama's folks out their making their case, I still have to wonder: at what point is this going to become "normal" in the public's eyes? Have we already reached this point? We have certainly reached the point where we're going to have this argument over and over again, on a monthly basis. January, fiscal cliff. February, sequester. March, continuing resolution. April, debt ceiling. Groundhog Day comes to Washington, in other words.
But utter crisis fatigue is a dangerous point to reach, because it will mean that the American people have largely just given up on politicians to ever reach a long-term agreement on the budget. We all know what both sides are going to say in the fight. We all know the positions that will be staked out. And hardly anybody expects any sort of "grand bargain" to emerge that will end the feelings of instability emanating outwards from the Beltway throughout the American economy at large.
As I said, I don't honestly know how close we are to economic crisis fatigue. And I have no idea which party this would help or hurt, either. Polls indicate consistently that the American public wants its cake but does not want to pay for it. 'Twas ever thus. We've always wanted more government than we're willing to pay for, right back to the starving and near-naked soldiers at Valley Forge. We've only ever completely paid off our national debt once in our entire history.
Republicans think they'll get to blame Obama for any actual doomsday. Democrats think they'll have the upper hand with the public. At this point, the polls do mostly support the Democratic way of thinking -- the public will blame Republicans for any resulting catastrophe, by a large margin. But polls can change at the drop of a hat, especially as frustration mounts.
We've gone from brinksmanship to camping out permanently on the brink of disaster. Welcome to Edge City, folks.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant