Political Animal


July 13, 2011 10:40 AM ‘There’s no way they could possibly be this stupid’

By Steve Benen

Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial and an economic advisor to the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve Board, appeared on MSNBC yesterday to talk about the debt-ceiling crisis created by Republicans. Analyzing recent events, she seemed flabbergasted by the political recklessness. (thanks to reader S.D. for the tip)

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

For those who can’t watch clips from work computers, Swonk explained, “Coming back from Europe, the Europeans just can’t believe we’d be so foolish as to decidedly squander away our debt rating in such a frivolous manner. This just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

“Right now, financial markets in the U.S. are giving this a 0% probability of happening. With all the time I’ve spent in Washington, although everyone believes it’s just inconceivable, those who don’t agree it’s inconceivable are the Congresspeople we need to actually vote on it. And that’s what really is disturbing: they’re the ones who are unconvinced that there’s any problem out there.

“Everybody else is saying, ‘This is just so horrible. There’s no way they could possibly be this stupid.’ Well, I’m not sure. They could possibly be so stupid.”

Asked how economists can explain reality to those who don’t want to raise the debt ceiling, Swonk went on to say, “I don’t even know how to explain it any more clear to them…. This is something you just don’t play with.”

It got me thinking about how I might try to explain this to someone outside the United States. Why would American officials, on purpose, choose to stop paying America’s bills? Why would these officials want to deliberately undermine the country’s credit rating? Why would elected lawmakers, who presumably like their country, risk an economic crash on purpose? Why would American voters elect such lunatics?

Alas, I’m not sure how I’d answer any of these questions from an outsider looking in. The best I can do is try to explain that there’s a deep strain of madness that’s overcome one of our major political parties, and it’s an illness that puts us all at risk.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Lifelong Dem on July 13, 2011 10:47 AM:

    I wish some Democrat--Reid, Durbin, Pelosi, Biden, SOMEBODY--would get in front of every possible camera every day to hammer home the point that raising the debt ceiling is a routine thing that Congress has been doing for decades. It's a routine issue. It's a routine vote. Boehner, Cantor and McConnell have all voted for it in the past without raising a word of fuss. The only reason they're making it an issue now is pure partisan politics.

    A Democrat needs to be saying this every day.

  • Sarafina on July 13, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Oh please. This answer, though despicable, is easy. The Republicans want the Democrats to fail so much they will play with the nation's credit rating. That's all.

    Racism possibly plays a part, but it's mostly Republican greed.

  • stormskies on July 13, 2011 10:47 AM:

    Let's not forget the 'stupid' relative to the Amercian's who elected these 'stupid' repiglicans into office in the first place .. this after 8 years of stupid repiglicans led to the destruction of our, and the world's, economy ... remember NONE OF THIS WOULD BE HAPPENING UNLESS THOSE 'STUPID' AMERICANS HAD NO ELECTED THESE 'STUPID' REPIGLICANS ...

  • HopefulOkie on July 13, 2011 10:49 AM:

    It's simple. Its the black man!

  • kindness on July 13, 2011 10:54 AM:

    How to explain it? It's easy. Just tell them that originally Republicans thought that by purposefully tanking the economy they could run up big wins in the 2012 elections, as they had in the 2010 elections. That the result is armageddon in the financial community never entered into the picture. It was always based entirely on projected results for the next election.

  • biggerbox on July 13, 2011 10:57 AM:

    Aw, isn't that sweet? The Europeans still remember when the United States was run by practical people and not ideological fanatics. Man, those were good times. I guess it's nice someone still thinks of us that way. Too bad it's not true.

    I do kind of miss those days back when there were sane Republicans. Damn you, Grover Norquist!

  • DAY on July 13, 2011 10:59 AM:

    it is simple. Simple Americans voted for simple politicians.

    -the kind who say (clutching their assault rifle) "I'll redeem your Treasury Bills when you can pry the money out of my cold, dead hands!"

  • c u n d gulag on July 13, 2011 10:59 AM:


    They're under the impression that the worse things are in the country, the better for them.

    And I'm not sure I disagree, based on 2010.

    They need things bad so that they can take over this country before the demographics make them as obsolete as a hitching post.

    While success for them means a Dominionist Christian Fascist States of America, where voting is restricted, and corporations have their political flunkies, through legislation, increase the numbers of serfs willing to work for nothing - all while the serfs are praying, in government approved churches, that "God will provide."

  • Bill on July 13, 2011 10:59 AM:

    The republicans are sociopaths.

  • franker on July 13, 2011 11:10 AM:

    Another explanation is that many very conservative Republicans, and a significant number of them in the House, cannot stand the idea of Obama as President of the U.S. Strains of ideology combined with racism drive this view and make them take actions that are anti-Obama and ignore the fact that such actions are at the same time against the best interests of the nation as well as of their immediate constituents. Combine ignorance, stupidity and malevolence and you have the formula that has been fueling much of this debate of the past two years and has come to a head with the debt ceiling fiasco.

  • Peter C on July 13, 2011 11:11 AM:

    "Thereís no way they could possibly be this stupid."

    With the Republican party seriously considering nominees like Michele Bachmann for president, I wonder which Republican party they've been observing.

  • walt on July 13, 2011 11:12 AM:

    This has been observed by people much smarter than myself but I'll repeat it: the Republican Party is now media-based. That means it doesn't compromise because compromise is boring. It doesn't care for empirical evidence because that, too, is boring. It doesn't share adult responsibility for governance because that is REALLY boring.

    At first, the puppetmasters thought this was a clever way of mobilizing low-information voters on behalf of their agenda. But media messaging got way too provocative and the low-information voters starting getting their ids stroked a bit too much. Now, the only room temperature in the GOP house is extremely hot.

    The worst thing here is that there's no road back to sanity. The success of the scandal ensures that they won't mess with the formula. The best thing is that the old, white voters who comprise the core of this lunacy are dying off. Maybe, we can rescue this nation after they're gone. I tend to doubt it but it's our only hope.

  • slappy magoo on July 13, 2011 11:13 AM:

    Republicans spent 2009 and 2010 obstructing most attempts to right the bad economy and then blaming Obama for his supposed inability to turn the economy around. The media provided able assists throughout, pushing the talking point that at best, both sides were to blame, while simultaneously giving Republicans more air time to push their talking points, giving the impression to low-info voters that this was, indeed, Obama's fault.

    For their efforts, the Republicans were handsomely rewarded in 2010, while most of America was pointing and laughing at Christine O'Donnell.

    Why WOULDN'T they double down on this kind of insanity?

    Until American voters understand that paying attention to what happens in Washington is kind of a big deal, this is what happens. You've got to be involved.

  • rob on July 13, 2011 11:13 AM:

    "The best I can do is try to explain that thereís a deep strain of madness thatís overcome one of our major political parties, and itís an illness that puts us all at risk."

    Yes, it is a virulent infection the Republican Party is suffering from, but its resistence had been weakened for years by a debilitating media environment that even today rates a clearly unqualifed Michelle Bachman-a looney liar- as a "serious" candidate for president. You can only weaken, mock, disrespect, laugh at, deride, and treat as "the problem", government institutions for so long before you make it so.

  • Eisbaer on July 13, 2011 11:14 AM:

    Europeans shouldn't be so surprised. Anyone who was sensible and reviewed the actual evidence would've been surprised that we would've gone to war with Iraq on the pretext of curbing terrorism when there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi involvement with al-Qaeda. This is just the latest iteration of right-wing mud-dumb ignorance.

  • alex on July 13, 2011 11:15 AM:

    The simplest answer is: the Republicans are GREAT at politics. They wanted to be in power to push their agenda because they believe their conservative Christian beliefs are best. So they fought their culture war really hard, got themselves elected, but they couldn't flip the country's politics enough, so they had to fight to get reelected so they'd have more time for their policies. This incessant need to win elections became the first priority, governing was second... how'd they win before? Culture wars; they kept fighting it and convinced millions of idiots that if they vote Dem, their country would be destroyed.

    Now these idiots are so far entrenched in ideology that they leave no room for governing, and if the people they elect don't fulfill their ideological duty, they'll replace them with idiots who will, governing be damned.

    So there you have it, Republicans are so good at being in power for being in power's sake, that they've created a base of idiots that want an UNunited States of America.

  • Adam on July 13, 2011 11:20 AM:

    It's crisis fantasy camp and an addiction to emergency rule.

  • Josef K on July 13, 2011 11:26 AM:

    I'd put it down to a mix of ignorance, willful stubborness, and outright partisan calculation. All three could be applied in various doses to every member of the Republican caucus.

    Regardless of how we got here, we're now looking at a situation that has no modern precedent, whose consequences can potentially (and likely will) ripple across the entire planet. What this will mean to the average joe working in Burger King in Topeka, Kansas, I can't immediately say. I'm not sure I want to find out, either.

    The next 20 days promise to be quite tense on all sides. And that doesn't even take into consideration what's likely to come afterwards (presuming some deal is struck where the debt ceiling is raised in enough time to keep the markets stable).

    If the Republicans have shown a willingness to 'kill' a hostage like the debt ceiling, who thinks they'll have any qualms about 'killing' another one, like the normal budget? Maybe they're counting on a national case of "Stockholm Syndrome" to keep the public in check when they shut down the government again. Maybe they've convinced themselves this is how government is supposed to operate 'normally'.

    Maybe I'm off to have tea with the Mad Hatter.

    Interesting times, indeed.

  • vwcat on July 13, 2011 11:39 AM:

    Ideology and the shock of the country electing a black man and a democrat drove them to their usual hysterical behavior (does anyone remember the sheer madness by republicans during the clinton years).
    Add to this the media's obsessing need for conflict and sensationalism that made more of the Tea Party then they actually were. It was like driving an average person to reality star status overnight and ignoring the fact that the star lacked talent.
    the media refused to admit it was just run of the mill rightwing base acting out. they created them to be the media darlings of 09-10.
    So, a lockstep party elects a bunch of tea party reactionaries who know little to nothing about government, governing or legislating.
    And they just keep goading each other on to more and more outrageous.
    the leaders played on the tea party knowing they were a bunch of lose cannons and now are holding the bag of a bunch lunatics shooting off loaded guns and wanting to blow up DC

  • Stella Barbone on July 13, 2011 11:41 AM:

    I think that the Thugs believe - truly believe - that the Ds are so vile (socialist, country-hating, atheist, Muslims, etc.) that no price is too high to pay. They've spun themselves up into fury in their echo machine.

    I also think that there is a component of the GOP that is still fighting the cold part of the War of Northern Aggression and the U.S. Government represents, of course, The Enemy.

  • Homer on July 13, 2011 11:41 AM:

    You are right. The Republicans are media driven. And the media they listen to is telling them that defaulting will not be a big deal. In the past week I have heard both Rush and Sean Hannity say that the government will still have income after Aug 2nd and can use those funds to pay for whatever it needs. Defaulting? It's just the Demmycrats scare tactics!

  • Mr. Serf Man on July 13, 2011 11:44 AM:

    Hey Walt
    I think you just gave away the plot line to Idiocracy
    Seems to me it has ceased to be a parody.

    Brawndo - Its got electrolytes

  • Texas Aggie on July 13, 2011 11:47 AM:

    There are a number of things at play here. One is that to convince someone (a republican) of a fact, they need to be playing in the real world. These guys are NOT playing in the real world. Every policy they advocate is based on faith, not evidence or reality. They start with the result they want and then, by faith, construct some sort of a scaffold that supports their predetermined result.

    Reality has a liberal bias, and right wingers are not about to go there. It has always been so, but never as true as when the discourse was dominated by the christianist right wing.

    Then there are minor things like a willingness to risk the well-being of our country that they don't really believe is at risk anyhow, in order to gain power. Also, hatred of the "other", a strong right wing characteristic, has something to do with it. Finally, through a selection process, the people now representing the republican party in Congress are incapable of rational thought because, in order to win elections, they have to resemble their constituents. It's difficult for a sane individual to convincingly pretend to be a whackjob and the voters can tell when a politician is just pretending to be stupid. Thus the winners of the elections are increasingly honest to goodness whackjobs.

  • Jim on July 13, 2011 11:49 AM:

    I saw Swonk on this same show a few weeks ago, talking about the debt crisis being manufactured and political and how shameful it was to use the debt ceiling as political leverage. When Bashir pointed out that it was the Republicans who were doing this, she quickly cut him off to make the point, in the flat, rote tones of a programmed cultist, "I blame both parties." The segment was over. I was kind of hoping Bashir would probe that a little. Not being a long-term Villager, maybe he hasn't internalized the Broder yet, but there was no time.

  • TCinLA on July 13, 2011 11:51 AM:

    The best I can do is try to explain that thereís a deep strain of madness thatís overcome one of our major political parties, and itís an illness that puts us all at risk.

    Further proof that Mencken had it right back in 1924:

    "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

  • cmdicely on July 13, 2011 11:54 AM:

    The Republicans want the Democrats to fail so much they will play with the nation's credit rating. That's all.

    Actually, I think its even simpler than that. Some of the Republicans, at least, want the U.S. credit rating to be hit; the more expensive it is for the US to borrow money, as they see it, the more reasonable their rhetoric about the need to cut the deficit and cut spending will seem. Everything in the "negotiations" is, for that faction, simply an effort to build PR cover for triggering a default: they don't want a deal -- not even on favorable terms -- they want a show of negotiations that will provide a fig leaf of an excuse for not raising the limit and destroying the nation's credit.

  • Old Uncle Dave on July 13, 2011 11:55 AM:

    Both parties refuse to consider cuts in defense spending.
    OK, how about they cut *Offense* spending. The US military has not been involved in a truly defensive military action since WW2.

  • Jim on July 13, 2011 11:59 AM:

    Okay, got the clip to play. Did anyone else hear the word that wasn't mentioned? It begins with an "R". The problem isn't "these politicians" or "these congresspeople". Both sides are not equally to blame. Sigh. As Joni Mitchell almost sang, the circle jerk goes round and round.

    and... "don't pay Congress"? Local market talk radio silliness.

  • SYSPROG on July 13, 2011 12:02 PM:

    How can they be so stupid? Easy. They ARE that stupid. These are the same people who played with their personal wealth (buying houses w/ minimal down, junk bonds, tech bubbles) and then when the economy tanked THEY WALKED AWAY. They don't understand economics, they surely don't understand the debt ceiling and the arguement about destroying the 'full faith and credit of the US' means nothing to them. They are shysters. They bought great ADS to pull the wool over the eyes of the voter and know when they have to actually DO something they are looking for yet another person to blame so they can walk away. Patterning. It always tells the story.

  • Varecia on July 13, 2011 12:10 PM:

    They're supported by stupid people burning with the fire of fanaticism. They're the most dangerous kind of people a given nation or society could produce.

  • dfhoughton on July 13, 2011 12:16 PM:

    To explain this to a non-American you need only point out that the sub-population threatening to blow up our credit rating are the ideological heirs of the people who drew us into a civil war over the right to own other human beings. Over half a million died in a conflict over whether you could treat certain people as outside the protection of morality and decency. It puts things in perspective.

  • Gramiam44 on July 13, 2011 1:50 PM:

    GOP/Tea Party!! Here's yer sign!

  • Roddy McCorley on July 13, 2011 2:16 PM:

    Here's how you explain it:

    Vandals break things. It's what they do.

  • Russell B on July 13, 2011 3:11 PM:

    That's a new word right there: [b]Swonked[/b]

    That's a bumper stick: [i]Republicans - they could possibly be that stupid[/i]

  • Pea on July 13, 2011 3:54 PM:

    Child holds breath in temper tantrum till he passes out.

    Salem witch trials.


  • Sasha on July 13, 2011 4:24 PM:

    ÔŅĹThe two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.ÔŅĹ -- Harlan Ellison

    Never underestimate the power of stupid.

  • nk007 on July 13, 2011 9:01 PM:

    Mitch McConnell spelled it out yesterday: the problem is not debt or deficit, the problem is: they don't want President Obama in the White House. If the President announced today that he is not going to seek a second term, Republicans would vote en mass to raise the debt ceiling with absolutely no cuts in spending. They might even raise taxes on the millionaires/billionaires. These people see Obama as illigitimate, though he was elected by the majority of Americans in an electoral landslide.

    It is truly a sad day in America when a political party would destroy the country in order to defeat just one man. I hope sane Americans will quickly rise up and say NO to the Republican/teabag madness. Republicans need to be taught a lesson that it's foolish to spit in the wind because that spit is likely to come back to you.

  • Pyre on July 13, 2011 11:49 PM:

    "The best I can do is try to explain that there's a deep strain of madness that's overcome one of our major political parties, and it's an illness that puts us all at risk."

    I'm sure the Europeans would understand your explanation, Steve, but I doubt they would be reassured.

    They had a vivid enough experience of such a party running a powerful nation in the 1930s and '40s -- Germany, that time -- and probably don't want a repeat.

  • jhm on July 14, 2011 6:22 AM:

    Without wanting to make too strong a causal relationship, I would say that a growing (or at least not abating) acceptance of "faith" as an unalloyed good plays a part. I am an anti-theist for many reasons, but at the core, I don't necessarily have a problem with what the religious believe, but why they do.

    When a pundit or pol goes on the air and says "I believe X," and expects not to have to justify this belief with any evidence, or even in the teeth of all available evidence, this undermines the very idea of debate. When positions are measured not by the strength of the argument but by the strength of one's conviction, we cannot be surprised when the looniest ideologues rise to the top.

  • Greg Leisner on July 16, 2011 4:38 PM:

    It is easy to explain; just quote John Milton's Paradise Lost: "Tis better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven."

    OK, that still doesn't make any sense, but at least it's an accurate explanation!