[Y]ou will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!"--Abraham Lincoln, February 27, 1860, Address at Cooper InstituteLincoln was speaking of the secessionist fire-eaters who would, with South Carolina in the lead, try to destroy the Union later that same year. Last night, that same attitude was on vivid display in the United States Congress, and once again, South Carolina played a prominent role.
All seven Republican members of Congress from South Carolina voted against Speaker John Boehner's debt ceiling bill. The bill passed the House by the bare minimum, with 22 Republicans voting against it and no Democrats voting for it. It then went to the Senate, where Senators Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham joined the Democrats in voting it down.
Although they voted with the Democrats, they did so for different reasons. The Democrats opposed the bill primarily because it would return us to this debt ceiling nightmare again in another six months. The highwaymen of South Carolina did so because its spending cuts were not draconian enough, its demand for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution not iron-clad enough.
On the CBS Evening News last night, the four freshmen Republican House members from South Carolina (the veteran Joe "You lie!" Wilson excepted) were featured in a story about opposition to raising the debt ceiling.
They spoke with apparent sincerity about the need to make fundamental change. Jeff Duncan spoke about the potential problems of the future: "I've got three young boys ... and I don't want them ten years from now to say, 'Dad, when y'all were at the brink, what did you do?' ... I don't want to have to answer him, 'I didn't do enough.'"
Touching as that is, it shows no concern at all for the very real consequences of failing to compromise. When asked about the potential disaster of failing to raise the debt ceiling, Trey Gowdy, who is my representative from the 4th Congressional district, rather self-righteously dismissed the question: "What is one person's intransigence is another person's deeply held conviction."
What Gowdy is really saying is that he values his own "convictions" above the national interest. He will follow his convictions, and if the result is financial disaster, and another Great Depression, that's not his responsibility. He is only responsible to his personal convictions.
Gowdy's refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions is stunning, and as I've noted before (here and here), typical of the baneful influence of South Carolina's most famous senator, John C. Calhoun.
In the same speech quoted above, Lincoln succinctly summed up this mindset:
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.
This attitude is deeply, fundamentally, undemocratic. That is what is so dangerous politically about the situation in which the United States finds itself today. Above and beyond the financial dangers, we are facing a test of our political system. That system values process over any specific outcome. Whether they realize it or not, these freshmen representatives, and the rest of the Tea Party radicals, value results over process.
There is no need for the nation to be staring into the abyss of financial chaos. Like the pre-Civil War fire-eaters, they have created a crisis, confident that they can get their way--one, by the way, which they know--they know--they cannot get through the normal democratic process--by putting a gun to the nation's head.
They blithely, like Lincoln's highwayman, tell us that the rest of us will be to blame if we force them to wreck the economy because our "deeply held conviction" tells us compromise, not blackmail, is the right way to go.
There is an extremely important principle at stake here: that the American government should not be forced to function with a gun to its head. If the highwaymen get their way, they will do incalculable damage to the nation's political system. It is well past time for leaders in both parties, not just one, to recommit to process over results, and put an end to this unnecessary, dangerous, and manufactured crisis.