Party First: GOP Leadership and Our Real Deficit Problem

07/15/2011 05:24 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2011

134 years ago, a Republican politician coined a simple, breathtaking maxim: "He serves his party best who serves the country best." We have no way of knowing, through so much time, whether that was ever more than a callow aspiration or a clever line, or indeed if anybody took seriously its sublime calculus even then; all we know for certain is that, as we watch the debt ceiling negotiations writhe gruesomely toward an unknown end, the sentiment of that statement in the hearts and minds of today's Republican leadership is as dead and buried as is its speaker.

We live in a country that no longer has the luxury of playing political make-believe, at a time when reality -- once safely in our rear view -- threatens at long last to overtake us, to make us pay for our addiction to the destructive game of party first. We can no longer afford not only our sacred cows, but our most treasured mythologies as well: that freedom comes from an uninhibited market, that liberty means never having to think of your neighbor, that government is something other people use -- not this individual; never rugged I. For the first time in a long time, we have to be smart to survive.

Our long national color war of ideological loyalty has already cost us dearly in recent years. When we desperately needed a robust stimulus package to jump start our economic recovery, what we got instead was a tax cut pinata for Republican politicians to gleefully beat the stuffing out of as though it were some sort of Keynesian effigy (never mind that this half-measure actually worked quite well given its hamstrung potential). When we sought to fulfill the promise of affordable health care for all, we were met with death panels, godless socialism, and the still-pending Armageddon. When it became clear that our financial industry had chewed off its leash and destroyed all the furniture, our obligation to reform the system in order to keep those responsible from repeating themselves was tranquilized yet again by reckless deregulatory fervor.

Through it all, the very real needs of the country have been treated as hostages, as straw men, as vessels for social regression, as everything less than what they are: the sworn and solemn duties of a public servant. With the threat of default now looming over our collective heads, the stakes are higher and more terrible than ever -- yet the conduct of the Congressional leadership has failed, dramatically, to rise to the new level of seriousness. Senator McConnell and Congressman Cantor have behaved like children accustomed to playing with toy guns who have accidentally found a real one in the back of the closet. 'Bang bang!' "I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected!" 'Bang bang!' "The American people don't want new taxes on the rich!" They don't understand, or don't care, that this isn't just another game. And this time, they're taking aim at all of us.

We may never return to the days when serving the country, rather than regurgitating ideological liturgy, was the way in which a political party gained trust and power -- if such a time ever even existed. But this is a moment for urgent reason, a moment for adults, a time to put the toys away and go to work securing the most fundamental of our common causes. As long as the top priority of Republican leaders is to bring down Democrats rather than to lift up the American people, however, our ice will remain thin. By placing party over country again and again and again, McConnell and Cantor have threatened the solvency of both. Though the debt ceiling may ultimately be lifted in time, the GOP leadership's crippling deficit of service will be felt as long as those we elect to represent the public interest continue to treat our most dire threats as just another partisan game.