A few days before the election, I interviewed Sen. John McCain at Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters in Columbus.
The Arizona Republican and I got to know each other fairly well during his failed 2008 run for president, so I felt comfortable after the interview talking with him about a concern I have as an American citizen.
I am scared, I told McCain. Retirement is not so far off anymore. I have been doing the right things to prepare — paying down my debts and building up a decent 401(k).
But I don’t trust you, your congressional colleagues and the president to do the right thing, I said. Monumental decisions on fiscal policy must be made, and I worry that intractable ideology and inane partisan gamesmanship will bring more of the same gridlock that already has held back the economy.
Failure to act by year’s end on billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts could send the economy over the “fiscal cliff,” possibly into recession. If that occurs, another downgrade of the nation’s credit rating could ensue and the markets might take a dive, sacking my 401(k) and staving off retirement.
McCain did not attempt to assuage my paranoia. “Listen, my friend,” he said, “you speak for about 150 million Americans that are roughly in your age group.”
He conceded there was good cause for worry: “It’s disgraceful the way we’ve handled it.”
Last Tuesday’s election did little to allay my fears and, I assume, those of the other 150 million Americans McCain said I speak for. After an obscene $2 billion was spent to affect the outcome of the presidential election, we are left with the status quo.
“It was a very schizophrenic night for voters,” Chan Cochran, a Columbus-based GOP consultant, observed. “Disgusted by gridlock, they still sent the same players back to Washington.”
Democrat Barack Obama is still president. Republican John Boehner is still speaker of the House and Democrat Nancy Pelosi is still the minority leader. Democrat Harry Reid is still majority leader of the Senate and Republican Mitch McConnell is still the minority leader.
These leaders proved over the past four years that they cannot work together. They don’t even appear to like each other.
Why should we expect a different result now, even with a fiscal crisis looming? There are still just as many liberal Democrats in Congress who won’t countenance painful spending cuts and just as many tea party Republicans who won’t permit tax increases.
“I cannot imagine any bold initiatives that get through a Republican House, or any Republican spending cuts that make it to the president’s desk through a Democrat Senate,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Politics at Cedarville University.
The best hope is that Obama and Boehner can work out something. Pragmatists and dealmakers, they privately hammered out a “grand bargain” in 2011 to reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over a decade. But Obama reportedly couldn’t get deep spending cuts past Pelosi, and Boehner couldn’t get tax increases past his stubborn tea-party caucus.
Prospects seem dim for long-term economic reforms to reduce the deficit and put Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security on sustainable paths.
“Unless Speaker Boehner and President Obama can come to an agreement, expect this showdown to continue for the next two years,” Smith said.
We — you and me — allowed this to happen. We have enabled the gerrymandering that has eliminated competitive general elections and rendered a Congress full of granite-headed extremists. We have allowed special interests to buy our representatives by doing nothing to correct a corrupt campaign-finance system, made even worse by the Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in the Citizens United case.
As I told McCain, this gridlock has gone beyond threatening our nation’s economic well-being.
Now, it’s personal.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch.