Tea Party Downgrade Courtesy of the Rule or Ruin Republicans

Progressives shouldn’t hesitate to blame the Tea Party for America’s debt downgrade, says Paul Begala.

Progressives almost never get the labeling right. (To be fair, conservatives almost never get the policy right, which is worse.) What did we label an innovative tax credit to encourage work and reward those who leave welfare? The Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. Wow, that’s gripping. Not.

But it appears that this time we got the branding right. Within hours of the announcement that Standard & Poor’s had downgraded U.S. Treasury debt, progressives were all calling it the Tea Party Downgrade. I think it will stick because, as Henry Kissinger said in another context, it has the added virtue of being true.

It used to be that even contemplating a refusal to raise the debt ceiling was taboo. Ronald Reagan, in appealing to then–Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN), wrote: “The full consequences of a default—or even the serious prospect of default—by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar.”

Reagan worried about “even the serious prospect of default” because he knew that when a taboo is broached as a subject the result can be the same as if it were breached as a rule. For generations there was no serious discussion of not raising the debt ceiling. Sure, politicians made self-serving statements and cast grandstanding “nay” votes (as Sen. Barack Obama did when President George W. Bush needed to raise the debt ceiling), but our leaders understood that our full faith and credit had to be sacrosanct.

This ended with the Tea Party takeover. Although they claim to revere America’s Founders, many Tea Party politicians are anything but conservative. They did not, for example, conserve the tradition of protecting our debt. In fact, when asked about layoffs as a consequence of his party’s radical proposals, House Speaker John Boehner said, “So be it.”

This is the way with all taboos—whether it is divorce or body piercing or listening to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”—even entertaining the notion of doing it makes it more likely that you will actually do it. So be it.

Leaders like Speaker Boehner, prodded by Tea Party activists, openly flirted with default. Even a veteran moneyman like Mitt Romney, who should have known better, refused to speak out against the Tea Party position. And the downgrade came.

Now, counter to prevailing stereotypes, it is progressives who proudly wave the flag and right-wingers who run down America. While Romney whines about “the failure of leadership of the president of the United States in Washington D.C.” (glad you clarified that, Mitt. For a minute I thought you were talking about the president of the United States in Baraboo, Wisconsin), the billionaire Democrat Warren Buffett defends our country and mocks S&P, boldly announcing that “if anything, it may change my opinion on S&P,” and proudly declaring that the United States deserves a “quadruple A” rating.

One-hundred-fifty-one years ago, in his address at Cooper Union, Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, addressed his opponents bitterly: “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.”

The Tea Party Downgrade. Brought to you by Rule-or-Ruin Republicans.