An Historic Failure

My conservative blogging colleague, Anson Burlingame, called my attention to an article in todays Washington Post, Origins of the debt showdown. I did find it “instructive”, as he suggested I would. It is a good chronology of how Tea Party enthusiasts began in January 2009 with dismay over President Obama’s inauguration and then organized with increasing strength to eventually produce the recent crisis over the debt ceiling.

Protestors at the Philadelphia Tea Party on Ap...

Image via Wikipedia

The GOP views this as a victory over their foes, Democrat liberals whom they blame for our soaring deficit and national debt. The Tea Party’s enthusiasm has been single-minded and nearly religious in its zeal, and that zeal was powered by a consistent meme among their members: the debt and the deficit are Obama’s fault. But, are they?

The latest Time Magazine (8/15/2011, p. 31) has an equally-instructive cover story, “The Debt Deal’s Failure”. It has an excellent chart of federal spending versus income as a percentage of GDP, broken down by presidential terms. I wish I could reproduce it here, but it isn’t available. The nearest I could find is from Wikipedia showing just the debt but not the income. Still, it is useful.

National Debt as a percentage of GDP

If you will look carefully you will see that the slope of the line starting sometime in 2007 to the end is constant and very sharply upward. In other words, the federal debt’s meteoric rise began under the Bush II administration and its momentum continued it into the start of Obama’s. The Time Magazine chart, which is not available, shows more and extends to mid 2011. It shows spending coming down at a good clip starting in late 2009, but more importantly it shows “income”, meaning government revenues, dropping sharply starting in 2007 from 18% to 15% at the end of 2010, thus exacerbating the debt problem. In case you don’t know what that is, it is the Bush II tax “breaks” in action.

The story is clear to me. The debt problem is indeed serious, but the debt-ceiling crisis was manufactured on a false political premise, that it was necessary to curtail spending by Democrats when in fact the debt was due to the bad fiscal policies of the Bush II administration. The Time article describes those policies like this:

Tax hikes and spending restraint under George H.W. Bush and even more so under Bill Clinton brought the problem under control and in the late Clinton years even produced a budget surplus. Then came the George W. Bush tax cuts, expanded health care benefits and two wars–all unpaid for–without any tax increases. The result: the surplus disappeared, and by 2008, the debt had ballooned to $5.8 billion. The final blow was the financial crisis and recession, which meant that federal tax revenues collapsed, followed by more tax cuts and stimulus spending. The debt rose to its current $14.3 trillion.

The article then says this,

So far, the national debate has been built around the fantasy that we do not have to choose between big government and low taxes–that we can get both by cutting waste, fraud and abuse. But the money is in the big middle-class items, from Medicare to the mortgage-interest deduction. With federal taxes at 15% of GDP, a historic low, and spending at 24% of GDP, there is really no conceivable way to close the gap without increasing taxes–either raising rates or eliminating deductions and loopholes. And Republicans might find to their dismay that when forced to choose, Americans will decide that they like their government programs after all. Polls show that the public would rather raise taxes than, for example, cut Medicare. (In fact, we would have to do both.) The public may hate government in theory, but it has warm feelings about most individual government programs, from the space shuttle to Head Start to Pell Grants. This may be why Obama might be happy to have this debate in 2012 and urge a mix of cuts and increased revenues.
Whatever the outcome of the ideological debate, that outcome has to then be translated into public policy. For that to happen, we need a government that works. What the debt crisis has highlighted is that Congress–the heart of day-to-day government–is utterly and completely broken.

All this brings me back to Anson’s article from the Washington Post, “Origins of the Debt Showdown”. It details the interesting turn of events when both Boehner and the President expressed interest in some kind of “grand deal” that would actually do something meaningful about both revenue and entitlements. Here is a part I found especially instructive:

In mid-July, Boehner tried again for a big deal. On Friday, July 15, as Capitol Hill began emptying out for the coming weekend, he invited White House chief of staff William Daley and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to his office. With Cantor in the room, Boehner laid out an ambitious plan to tame the debt that would include a rewrite of the tax code that would raise an additional $800 billion over 10 years — the equivalent of letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the nation’s top earners, a key Democratic demand.

If White House officials had any skepticism that Boehner could deliver, they felt they had little choice but to engage him. The deal was big and bold, and White House officials believed it was worth going the extra mile to see whether it would work.

On Thursday, July 21, Obama’s senior advisers met at the White House with top aides to Boehner and Cantor. For two hours, they went line by line through the emerging agreement. It felt like they were “very close” to the promised land, a senior administration official said.

That afternoon, Obama called Boehner and gave him a choice: If you want aggressive entitlement cuts, I need more revenue. But if you can’t stomach extra revenue, we can dial back the entitlement cuts and still do something important.

The call went well, according to Democrats in the room. That evening, Obama met with Democratic leaders and told them to prepare for tough cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

Twenty-four hours later, the deal was dead. Once again, Boehner walked away. Worse, from the administration’s point of view, Boehner’s rhetoric was growing harsher, at times echoing the most uncompromising voices in his new majority.

Administration officials now faced what they saw as a frightening possibility: That the controlling party in the House might be willing to “let the house burn down,” in the phrase bandied about at the White House — unless its demands were met.

Obama’s top advisers, surveying their options, decided to open some doors to compromising on their tax demands. In their view, with flames licking the rafters, House Republicans were not just slamming doors shut. They were locking them.

That’s it. The deal collapsed and an historic opportunity was lost.  Boehner was willing to compromise, Obama was willing to compromise, the Tea Party was not.  In my opinion we are in for a lot more bickering amid the flames, and the core problem is the intransigent ideology of a zealous but misguided minority which prioritizes “victory” above the immediate national interest.  Religious zealots don’t compromise, and I see more than a little religion in the Tea Party’s bag.  Rick Perry seems emboldened as well, does he not?

I used to believe that a strong third political party would be good for the nation. After seeing the Tea Party in action I don’t think that any more.

Read more:,9171,2086858,00.html#ixzz1UNDg3hae

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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57 Responses to An Historic Failure

  1. johncerickson says:

    Highly off-topic question, to both Anson and Jim. Any chance of military memoirs? I’d love to see more of both your histories while in service.
    Thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I have several memoirs about my Navy years knocking around in my bean, John. I’m just waiting to see if they mature into something of interest to people not related to me. Inspiration is my master and not the reverse. But, thanks for asking.



  2. hlgaskins says:

    “You know I assume how I feel about “statistics” and “links”. I suspect rather deeply that I can read all of the above and find out how “whatever” the Koch Bros might be. I can also go find all sorts of “links” telling me how “bad” Sorros might be. But as you may note, I pay no attention to either one of them.”

    Anson, feel free to post anything that you want about Soros. I have no particular fondness for the man one way or the other.

    There may crooks on both sides but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore them because they appear to support our cause. In my view all of them should be outed and prosecuted where crimes are committed.

    “I would read and listen to her positions as they are developed and “shoot holes in them” from the right to enable her to strengthen her arguments or even positions.”

    You can’t shoot holes in anything with only vapor as ammunition.

    “Bottom line, if you or the EC provides a link I already know what it will say. It will support your position.”

    You might have an idea as to what our links will say, but you will have no idea if they’re credible. I always try to post links that are nonpartisan, but in every set of political claims there is always one claim that rings of legitimacy. It’s our jobs as citizens to find out which political claim is most likely to be true before choosing one to support.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    Some people have military careers that are of interest to the general public, but not many.

    I have written a “book” call “Being a Burlingame”. However it was only distributed to my immediate family and a very few “friends”. I did my research back to 1649, the first Burlingame to come to America (that I could find) and I know is my direct ancestor. I then wrote of the 12 generations down to and including my grandchildren in that direct line with fairly short “pages” on some and more pages on things that I know about from my lifetime, directly.

    I gave it to my family, a small one, for Christmas in 2009. The response was not of the “best seller” kind. Everyone said “thanks”, etc but not much more than that. One reason I suspect that was the case at least for my kids and grandkids that are HS age was I revealed some “dirty linen”, genetically speaking in recent generations going back to my grandparents and included both of my parents and me in that disclosure.

    I chose to do so as a warning or “guide post” for future generations for things to be careful about. The book focused more on that subject for my family than any career successes that I may have had in the military. Primarily that is the main reason it would be of no interest to anyone other than my family unless someone just wanted to “dig up dirt”.

    I would hasten to add however that the “average career” for a “Cold War Submariner” is not an “average career” by most standards of civilian jobs or even most military careers. Such a career was unique in many regards and indeed (and perhaps egotistically) operating a nuclear submarine during those years was a great challenge for each and every “good” sailor serving aboard such ships. “Hunt for Red October” was the first hint of what it was like and Clancy got a lot of things right with good research and some slick guesses on his part.

    The real “tip of the iceberg” description of some really Top Secret operations (at the time ) is in “Blind Man’s Bluff”. I still do not understand why the authors and those interviewed were not prosecuted for revealing information that I still think is highly classified as to “methods and means”.

    And remember that during those years (around 1965 to the fall of the Soviet Union circa 1990) many, many submarine missions were conducted ONLY WITH PRESIDENTIAL LEVEL APPROVAL for each and every mission. A select few commanded such missions at sea and a few thousand participated in such over those years. And as typical of submarine operations, just about every man on board was required to do his job to the highest standards of performance. A “mess cook” could drop the lid on a toliet to cause a noise at the wrong time and all hell could break lose if he did so. That is “up front and personal” type of submarine operations that few know about even today. And I know of at least one ship that “came home with a big dent in its hull” as a result. (Not mine or one that I served upon, thank the lord)

    BUT, neither we nor the Soviet’s ever lost a submarine as a result of such “encounters” during all those years and most of the time the Soviet’s never knew we were there, sometimes “right behind them” for some 40 or 50 days at a time. Exciting stuff for sure and “Blind Man’s Bluff” might be of interest to you.



    • johncerickson says:

      Thanks, Anson, I will definitely try to get a copy of “Blind Man’s Bluff”. I love all the sub thrillers (“Red October”, “Crimson Tide”, even “Down Periscope” for the comedy, and the grand-daddy, “The Enemy Below”), and have some vague idea of the operational intricacies. I’d be intrigued to see your family history, but understand your desire for privacy. That’s something I stand on for EVERY vet – I’ll ask, but if they don’t want to answer, I thank them and walk away. Pre-dates my re-enacting days, when I met a number of vets immediately back from ‘Nam. I respect the heck out of both you and Jim (and anyone else here) who has served. No matter how much I might agree or disagree with you, I owe you BIG, and will never forget it. You vets will always have at least one supporter, come Hell or high water, as long as I draw breath.
      Once again, thanks for your time, Anson. You too, Jim.


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        Thanks for your respectful comments, John.

        Anson has already recommended in “Blind Man’s Bluff” the best account of the US Navy’s Cold War spying activities that I have read. By the way, I was a young officer on a fleet boat in Pearl Harbor in the early 1960’s and often saw USS Halibut tied up near us on the submarine base, and I never had a clue about the kind of operations it was involved in. If you read the book you will take much from that statement.

        If you are interested in older submarine history I recommend “Silent Victory” by Clay Blair, Jr., first published in 1975. It is the true, unvarnished truth of submarines in WW II, all the warts and hairs intact. It is also a cautionary true tale for engineers and technical experts of all stripes. Here is an Amazon link to it:



  4. ansonburlingame says:

    John again,

    I used to have all the “clearances” needed to see the details of essentially all Cold War submarine operations and could read the actual “patrol reports”. I also wrote a few of such reports myself as XO and CO on such submarines. But that is now history for sure.

    TODAY, I believe the real “tip of the spear” is in special operations, across the board for all the four services. I pick SEALs in these comments only as an expample. Those “guys” do it “all today” in terms of both intelligence collection and combat. The public and writers can only “guess” sometimes with education and sometimes, as with Clancy, only “good” guesses what it is like with Seals (et al) today. A book entitled “Warrior Elite” written by a former “frogman” that became a SEAL early in Vietman and then went back to observe the “BUDS” course for six months gives one a hint of what it is like to become a SEAL. Given what that alone takes one can then only imagine what it is like to really BE A SEAL. Almost unbelievable, in my view.



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