The debt ceiling and the fifth labor of Heracles

I was at a dinner party last night at which several intelligent and opinionated people were asked to speak about matters of the moment, including presidential politics (Who? Who?) and the debt ceiling.

Two things saddened me about the former: 1) several people suggested that the Republican to back was the one who was most effective in attacking President Obama; and 2) the person who fit that bill was Mitt Romney.

I think that’s wrong on both counts. In the first place, when it comes to presidential elections, the line to hum is “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” The successful candidate will be the one who wraps whatever criticisms he makes in the pleasing integument of a positive vision. Bonus points go not to the person who mounts the most telling attack but the one who presents the most creditable alternative.

In the second place, the idea that Mitt “Mr. Establishment” Romney is the best placed candidate is (as I suggested in this space before)  laughable. One eminent commentator last night (sorry, Chatham House rules, so no names) commended Mr. Romney because, unlike Barack Obama, he has “experience” and understands  business. Well, the president certainly lacked experience running anything other than a political campaign, but more worrisome is his incompetence. Experience accretes naturally with time. What is wanted is insight, understanding, and wisdom, qualities that are gifts of  talent, not longevity.

Mitt Romney looks good. He is a successful businessman. But what, aside from RomneyCare™ (aka ObamaCare avant la lettre) does he have to offer? What, for example, does he think about the debt ceiling?  We don’t know. He hasn’t said.  What specific spending cuts would he suggest to help rein in the deficit? We don’t know. He hasn’t said. The list of things Mitt Romney hasn’t weighed in about would fill a campaign. Several people were impressed with his zingers about President Obama during the recent debate among aspirants for the Republican nomination  in New Hampshire. Some of them were pretty good. But what, apart from deprecating the president’s behavior, does Mitt Romney have to tell us? He has been irritatingly equivocal about the disaster that is RomneyCare™.  And we know almost nothing about what else he has to offer for the simple reason that he hasn’t offered anything else. (“Oh, but he wrote a book,” replied one Romneyoid last night: and what, apart from the usual content-less bromides, do you find there, pray tell?)

As I said in my earlier reflection on the former governor of Massachusetts, he is a company man when the problem is the company. What is wanted is not a more efficient Washington insider.  What is wanted is someone who understands that a large part of our problem is the hothouse culture in which the Washington inside has taken root and thrived. Romney would not change the culture of Washington; he would cater to it, manage and massage it.

In a way, though, the prospect of a Romney  administration is an abstract worry.  Of all the chief Republican contenders at the moment, he is the one least likely to win. Romney represents a slightly more adult version of business-as-usual than does Barack Obama. He diffuses a more adult tone. But he and Obama are cut from the same bolt of bureaucratic cloth. And if it is business-as-usual you want, why not stick with the pro? Romney would be our Bob Dole, the default establishment candidate whom the voters would eschew -- Johnny Mercer again: "Don't mess with Mister In-Between."

I found it depressing that several distinguished guests at that party could trot out the name of Mitt Romney and believe they had given us something new or at least vital. Mitt Romney is a congeries of yesterday’s establishment Republican — well, I was going to say “clichés,” but so far what he has offered us doesn’t rise to the level of a cliché, which may be tired but at least is something definite. Mitt Romney has tone but no substance. Reality has a way of exposing emptiness and shedding an unflattering light upon equivocation, which is as close as Mitt Romney has come to articulating a policy about any of the critical issues we face.

Which brings me to the topic du jour, “the debt ceiling.”  Our host last night apologized for raising the topic.  Adults, he acknowledged, really shouldn’t have to spend time pondering such residua of political fecklessness. But the critical issue, as John Hinderaker put it at Powerline, is not the debt ceiling but the debt. And the debt problem, as he observes, “is a spending problem.”

That is what was so depressing about the president’s performance in the  “negotiations” (“the histrionics” is more like it) about the  debt ceiling this last week or so.  The real issue is not the the ceiling but the egress: how the hell are we going to get out from under this life-sapping drag on our nation’s vitality? Two things are necessary: the economy needs to grow and we need to spend less, much less. Obama and his fellow Democrats could not do more to stymie growth if they set out explicitly to throttle the economy. Their mad proliferation of business-killing regulation (how do you pronounce “Environmental Protection Agency”?) has hamstrung innovation and entrepreneurship and their unquenchable thirst for new taxes on everyone except for the 43.4 percent of filers who pay no federal income tax has dampened growth and job creation among businesses large and small across the land. As for meaningful spending cuts, the president, for all his posturing,  offered none, not one.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has held out longer and more vigorously than I thought he would in the face of the president’s discreditable partisan posturing. The cuts he proposes in his two-step plan are not enough, but they’re a start. Let’s see, as Mr. Boehner put it, whether the Democrats are ready to get serious.

It’s my sense that the public is growing more and more disenchanted with the Washington establishment. That disenchantment, after all, has fueled the astonishing rise of the tea party, which  pace Senator Tom Harkin, represents the center, not the “fringe” of the American middle-class.  The elections in November 2010  gave us a foretaste of what the tea party means for American politics.  I suspect that the main meal, coming to a polling place near you in November 2012,  will be a much more dramatic spectacle. Augean Stables, get ready to meet the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. I would not recommend standing downstream.