While discussing the debt ceiling controversy on his MSNBC television program recently, Chris Matthews said to his guest, Pat Buchanan:
"Winston Churchill once said, 'I refuse to be non-partisan between the fire brigade and the fire.' The fire brigade in this case are the grown ups, people like McConnell, and John McCain, and Lindsay Graham, and John Boehner, and the Democrats. They're trying to put out the fire. I'm not saying the Pelosi crowd aren't trying to win their side, but generally the grown ups say: 'Stop fighting over this, let's protect our nation's economy from default,' and you don't want to play that game. You want to join the crazy protestors."
To which Pat Buchanan responded:
"That is a terrible thing to say. You are saying the motivation of the Tea Party is to damage the country. Whatever you say about these people, it's unpopular what they're doing. They're getting beat up. They're standing by their principles... they're 'Tea Party patriots.'"
Buchanan's answer distills Matthews' accusation, and that of many of the Tea Party's critics, down to its essential claim: that the Tea Party's leaders want to deliberately damage the country, that they are more interested in partisan sniping and electoral victories than the "grown up" business of doing what is necessary to save our country from an economic crisis. Is it true? Is the Tea Party being irresponsible with our nation's future?
To begin with, Chris Matthews could benefit from President Obama's words in 2009, when he accepted Rep. Joe Wilson's apology for yelling "You lie!" during a joint address to Congress.
"I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big, important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people’s motives."
So setting aside the Tea Party's alleged motives for a second, along with the assumption that they want to hurt America, or at least don't mind doing so to score political victories, what is it that the Tea Party leaders are actually saying, and how does it compare to the opposing message of Chris Matthews' "grown ups?" President Obama and the Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling, the limit on how much the federal government can borrow. Tea Party leaders are saying the limit should not be raised without major spending cuts and a constitutional balanced budget amendment. Which view is more "grown up?"
When it comes to personal finance, it is generally accepted that running up debts in significant excess of what one can actually pay back is irresponsible and immature. When faced with mounting credit card and loan debt, the "grown up" thing to do is to cut up credit cards, significantly reduce household spending, and start to pay off debts. If a married couple in this situation were to have an argument over whether to cut all non-essentials from their family budget or go out and apply for more credit cards, the spouse in favor of cutting the family budget could hardly be accused of needing to "grow up."
Chris Matthews' other analogy is that of a fire, and he says that like Winston Churchill, he refuses to be non-partisan between the fire brigade and the fire. But his analogy takes for granted that "the fire" is the debt ceiling-- the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow. Tea Party leaders disagree and say that the $14 trillion national debt is the fire, burning through our nation's resources, destroying its wealth, and sucking the oxygen out of its economy. Interest on servicing the debt alone runs into the billions each month. The national debt, they argue, is the fire that must be put out, and the debt limit is actually keeping that fire from growing.
The "grown up" thing to do seems more like facing the reality of America's fiscal crisis right now, and accepting responsibility for it instead of pushing it off for future generations to handle. Indeed, one of the most important parts of being a grown up is looking out for the best interests of your childen and their future, even to the point of exercising a little restraint and sacrifice on their behalf. The real question is will the Tea Party and its leaders be grown up enough to face the reality that there is mathematically no way out of this fiscal crisis without significant cuts and reforms to Washington's military and entitlement spending?