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Mark Shields: Welcome to the ‘Loser’s’ Circle in Washington

No one emerges a winner in the showdown over America's debt ceiling

Sportswriting legend Grantland Rice gave us this timeless definition of sportsmanship:

“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost —
But how you played the game.”

But here in Washington, that last line has been regularly amended to read, instead, “But where you place the blame.”

As Congress flirted with national disaster over doing what previous Congresses had done 18 times at the request of President Ronald Reagan — raising the debt ceiling — much of the unofficial conversation was over who would be the political winners and losers out of this showdown.

My simple answer: There are no winners, just losers, including a serious hemorrhaging. Tom Gallagher, who keenly analyzes the economic implications of policy and politics, puts it best: “The winner of a mud-wrestling contest is still covered in mud.”

But, Democratic partisans counter, what about the ABC News/Washington Post poll that asked questions such as, “Who do you think cares more (President Barack Obama or Republicans in Congress) about protecting the economic interests of middle-class Americans” or “you and your family?” Obama was the choice by substantial margins, while Republicans by more than two-to-one landslides were judged as caring “more about protecting the economic interests of Wall Street financial institutions.”

“Caring more” is not unimportant to American voters. But good intentions and kindly sentiments are no match for practical results. Those of a certain age can recall a presidential election when voters asked who cared more about young voters, or elderly voters, or average voters like you overwhelmingly chose the Democratic nominee. Then, when asked for whom they would vote, these same folks by a landslide chose Republican Reagan over Democrat Walter Mondale.

In picking a president, we want a leader tough and shrewd enough to deal with corporate moguls, with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Chinese. That’s why it was unhelpful to his cause when Obama, visibly angry over House Speaker John Boehner’s withdrawal from their two-man summit on the debt ceiling, complained, “I’ve been left at the altar now a couple of times.” Those are the words a victim, with a whiff of self-pity, might use.

Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., was not pleased at reports that Obama in his private sessions with Boehner, R-Ohio, had been offering major cuts in Medicare and other domestic spending. After Obama’s end-of-the-session capitulation on the extension of the Bush tax cuts last December, Capuano observed that if Obama had been negotiating the purchase of a new car for him, Capuano “would end up paying sticker price” and get a model “with no radio.”

Do not think that Republicans will emerge from this debacle unscarred. In addition to acting like the bootlickers of Big Business and Big Money, Republicans and Boehner appeared to surrender to every demand of the Tea Party. They would be wise to study the 1972 high-energy campaign of insurgent Democrat George McGovern, with its liberal true-believers brandishing their own demands and non-negotiable agenda. After McGovern’s defeat, campaign director Frank Mankiewicz — avoiding the word “blackmail” — told historian Theodore White: “We were always subject to this pressure from the cause people. ... If I had it do over again, I’d learn when to tell them to go to hell.”

This has been a sad saga with no winners and too many losers, including the grievous loss of our already depleted confidence in each other.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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