Having lived in the former Soviet Union for 10 years, I will forever have plastered to the back of my cerebellum the commemorative bumper sticker: "WWSD?"
What Would Stalin Do? It's a useful question to ask sometimes, because it offers valuable perspective. What would Stalin have done with Britney Spears? Have her declared a People's Artist of the Soviet Union, with the Leningrad-Murmansk train line named after her. Dan Dierdorf would have been made Secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region. Shepard Smith would probably get to head up the Press Ministry to start, then maybe work his way up to Foreign Affairs. It's hard not to look at the American cultural landscape and see all sorts of people the old seminarian would really have liked.
But the main reason I'm thinking of this now is the debt ceiling/government shutdown issue. How would Stalin have handled all of this? Reflexively, I can't help but wonder.
I'm guessing he would have taken Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz's caucus members, loaded them onto cattle cars, and relocated them to a piece of woodsy wilderness in Alaska's Chugach National Forest. Once there, guards would have handed saws and hammers to the esteemed legislators (still dressed in suits and heels – no wasteful government spending on parkas!) and instructed them to build new congressional "branch offices" out of the still-living trees surrounding them. Always conscious of cost, Stalin preferred, whenever possible, to relocate pesky populations to remote deserts and taigas rather than waste bullets liquidating them. Tea Party congresspersons would naturally be one of the first nationalities moved.
Leaders of movements were a different matter. Of those, one had to make very public examples. In this instance, with Cruz and company, Old Koba would likely go the "Kirov's Assassins" route. First, he'd have someone like Ted Yoho bite an exploding apple during a live CNBC broadcast. Then he'd immediately send Eric Holder out for a massive impromptu press conference in which the White House, furious over the loss of so great a patriot, would announce a sweeping, coast-to-coast search for Yoho's killers.
Eventually, the chief suspects would be arrested, and they would be everyone you would expect – the Koch Brothers, Rand Paul and of course Cruz himself, who, weeping and begging for forgiveness, would confess in lurid detail to the crime in a live televised trial. He got Michelle Bachmann to design the exploding apple! They conspired to have it delivered on-set by Maria Bartiromo! And they all removed Yoho out of jealousy (he was getting too much ink for out-dumbing the field, saying a default would "bring stability to world markets")!
Not making any value judgments at all, but that's what Stalin would do. What is Barack Obama doing? Well, something much less than that. Much, much less, to the point where it's getting a little weird.
The Obama White House has rightly refused to negotiate with the Cruz-ians, but there's still a strange lack of urgency in some of the administration's public statements, and that lack of urgency is beginning to draw notice. Kevin Drum the other day wrote about Jack Lew's muted, yawning refusal to predict a catastrophe if we do default on Meet the Press last weekend:
Administration officials have a fine line to walk, trying to make sure they have well and truly warned everyone about how disastrous a debt ceiling breach would be, but at the same time not sending markets into a tailspin unnecessarily. I'm not sure what the answer is, but… Lew pushed the balance a little too far into yawn inducing territory yesterday. He needs to be clearer about what exactly would happen once we finally get to the day when we can't pay our bills.
Here's the problem with this entire situation. Every minute that Cruz presses forward sinks the Republicans into a deeper political hole, and the Democrats know this. Despite the seemingly impenetrable advantage the Republicans have gained through gerrymandering over the years (retaining their House majority in 2012 despite a two million-plus popular vote deficit), the party is now in serious danger of losing the House in 2014. Moreover, the shutdown debate has caused a massive schism within the Republican ranks, one symbolized by the open verbal combat that reportedly broke out between Cruz and other, less lunatic GOP Senators last week when the "reality caucus" discovered that Cruz had no exit strategy for this blow-it-all-to-hell stunt he's pulling.
That schism is also setting the party up for almost certain failure in the 2016 presidential race. Cruz's gambit – it sounds like a chess opening, doesn't it? Only one that begins with white snapping its king in half and throwing the pieces across the room – is galvanizing an unstoppable primary-season demographic that will trample anyone who tries to circumvent it on the way to the nomination.
One thing that gives solace is that Cruz himself, if he plans on being that nominee, must have some kind of plan here. If he pushes this too far, and we actually default, and millions of jobs are lost as most economists predict, he must know he'll have a hell of a time doing a whistlestop tour through the post-nuclear landscape he's going to leave behind in Middle America.
So one would think he's playing some kind of game, and that his real exit strategy is to be suddenly and ruthlessly defeated at the last minute by other mainstream Republican Quislings. Such a move would be at least half-smart. It would make him a supreme martyr within the party, and formalize his status as the de facto leader of this new Tea Party/Third Party movement that is devouring the old GOP like Streptococcus pyogenes.
On the other hand, if Cruz really is as dumb as he seems to be, and thinks that delivering on his crazy promise to bring the whole grid down is actually in America's best interests, then we're about to witness a radical reshaping of the political landscape. Because if we default and it causes anything like the worldwide financial catastrophe many serious economists expect, the Cruz demographic will be routed and the Republican Party will be forced to rebuild from scratch.
The modern Democrats may be morally suspect cynics who have failed the country on issue after issue, from the NSA to torture abroad to their refusal to fight corruption in the financial markets. But politically, they are not stupid. They surely see that there is no immediate political downside to letting Cruz play this out. Polls show the Republican Party approval rating has already dropped ten points, from 38 percent to an all-time low of 28 percent, and will only go lower from here unless disaster is avoided.
But the Democrats have to be big enough to resist the temptation to let the Republicans destroy themselves. They should be bringing every conceivable kind of pressure to save Cruz from himself and educate the public about the dramatic consequences of a default.
The 2008 crash was triggered by the failure of one investment bank, Lehman Brothers, and when that bank collapsed, the world discovered that it was now so interconnected financially that one significant and unexpected failure could start a nuclear chain-reaction of losses. The Lehman impact stunned everyone. The average American family lost 18 percent of its wealth within months. The stock market lost half its value. The repo market collapsed, freezing economic activity and leading to massive declines in asset prices. Unemployment soared past 10 percent almost instantly.
And that was just one bank failure. Can one imagine the consequences of the failure of the United States? The $12 trillion in outstanding government debt is 23 times bigger than the $517 billion Lehman owed when it went under in September 2008. In every way that Lehman's failure played havoc with the economy, the failure of U.S. debt would repeat the disaster, only it would do it on an almost inconceivably huger scale.
The entire world financial system revolves around the notion that the U.S. will never default, because under normal, rational circumstances, it can't. (It can always print enough money to meet its obligations, as even Alan Greenspan conceded two years ago.) Before this latest political madness, no one could ever have conceived of a sovereign state intentionally defaulting. But we're, like, a week away from this happening, and where's the emergency mobilization?
I'm not saying that this is the case, but one wonders whether the Democrats have made a miscalculation here, based upon their own narrow, transactional, materialistic view of politics. The Democrats may be sitting back just a little bit, content to let this felicitous political situation develop just a little longer, perhaps (and I have no proof of this) convinced that the other party will come to its senses and stand down at the last minute.
But Cruz and his people are something we never see in Washington – believers. His caucus is not doing this for Redskins tickets and PAC money. They're going for the Thelma and Louise ending. One last tender moment, holding hands and all. I have no idea what the Democrats can do to stop them, but we better hope they're trying everything, and not seeing a huge future political win as their ace card.