Dreck ceiling: Bloomberg’s centrist shtick is getting old, and dangerous

Michael Bloomberg. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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It's not clear whether the remarks that Michael Bloomberg delivered Monday night about the debt-ceiling showdown were dishonest or merely ignorant. Either way, they were definitely not helpful.

With a potentially catastrophic default now less than a week away, the mayor decided to play his favorite role: Third Way scold, alarmed by the shocking—shocking!—unwillingness of both national parties to put aside their differences and forge a compromise.

"[W]hile our budget deficit is bad enough, what’s worse is Washington’s leadership deficit that has put the nation at the brink of default," Bloomberg said, in the prepared version of his remarks. "To close that deficit, our national leaders need to stop staring down the other side and waiting for them to blink, and start working with the other side to get our stalled economy back in gear."

This sort of language would normally just be standard New Politics filler material, but here, it's much worse than that: It is a blatant distortion of what's actually happening.

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The debt-ceiling showdown is not equally the making of both parties. It is not a staring contest between Democratic and Republican leaders equally hell-bent on serving fanatical party bases, greedy special-interest groups and all of the other Third Way bogeymen. Instead, it is the creation of one specific faction of one party.

The debt ceiling is an arbitrary relic from World War I, an essentially meaningless cap that Congress has raised dozens and dozens of times without incident. There's no rational reason that it's still on the books, it has nothing to do with the country's current debt level, and there's no reason that extending it now should have precipitated any kind of a crisis. And if it were up to Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress—and, truth be told, more than a few Republicans—it would be extended right now without any further discussion. Deficits should be attacked through the budget and appropriation process, not the threat of a default after the government's money has been appropriated.

But the House Republican conference has decided that it is not interested in making things that easy, and has stood united all year behind a demand that the ceiling only be extended in exchange for steep and immediate deficit reduction. It h as further demanded that this deficit reduction come exclusively from spending reduction, and not tax increases, and that the defense budget (of course) be left alone.

In other words, the House Republicans have decided to take a quirky, symbolic provision—the debt ceiling—and to manufacture a confrontation over it, insisting that a series of deeply ideological demands be met before they'd even consider letting the United States pay its bills on time.

And how has the other side handled this?

Bloomberg's lecture would have you believe that Obama and Democrats have been equally radical and unyielding. But they haven't. Or did Bloomberg miss the part where Obama offered a "grand bargain" to the G.O.P.—cuts in Medicare, Social Security and other domestic programs in exchange for very modest revenue increases and an increase in the debt limit—and Republicans said no? Or the part where the Republicans rejected every other compromise put before them, even though the terms of each compromise would have given them virtually everything they were looking for?

This is why Bloomberg's rhetoric is so hollow. The truth about the debt-ceiling crisis is that one side created it and only one side has perpetuated it.

The mayor says that "national leaders need to stop staring down the other side and waiting for them to blink." In fact, Obama has taken enormous grief from activists and commentators on the left for putting entitlement cuts on the table. Many liberals think Obama went too far in making that offer, and maybe they're right. But that's just the point: He sought to give the Republicans a lot of what they wanted in order to resolve a crisis they created. They spurned him anyway.

Bloomberg, a credible extra-partisan actor, could have done a service by pointing this out on Monday.

There are only two possibilities for why he failed to do so, and one of them is very hard to believe: that he honestly doesn't realize that the source of the debt-ceiling showdown is a House Republican Conference filled with zealously anti-Obama Tea Party adherents, and less-zealous Republicans who fear crossing the true believers.  

The more probable reason he didn't call anyone out is simply that it would have complicated his shtick. Criticizing one party and acknowledging that the other has mainly acted responsibly during this saga would have threatened his Third Way pose. Bloomberg's calling card is his supposed independence from ideology, interest groups, and the two-party system. In reality, he's pretty much a doctrinaire Wall Street Democrat—far to the left on cultural issues and generally fine with big, activist government, but cozy with the financial sector. If he were in the Senate, it's hard to imagine his voting record would be much different than Chuck Schumer's.

But image is everything, and cursing Washington is easy.

Bloomberg's Third Way homilies have made him the dream presidential candidate of "Morning Joe" and Thomas Friedman and all of the other pundits who—against all available evidence—have convinced themselves that most Americans are actually part of "the radical center."

Never mind that this belief is not based in fact, and stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the growing number of independent voters means. (Short version: Partisan behavior is actually on the rise, even if voters prefer to think of themselves as "independents.") A fair chunk of the pundit class is convinced it's true and has convinced itself that Bloomberg possesses the special formula that will break the D.C. logjam that both parties have contributed equally to. They never explain how he would do this, and neither does he.

Friedman, in fact, used his Sunday column to issue his latest Third Way call to arms, a bold prediction that the center is poised to rise up behind a new candidate who will challenge the two major parties in the 2012 presidential election. He didn't suggest any names for that white-knight role, but with his speech Monday, Bloomberg seemed to be saying, somewhat desperately, "Please mention me next time."