Monday, June 5, 2023
It's Monday, June 5, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Was the Debt Ceiling Crisis a Manufactured Drama? Not Entirely, But There Was a Political Plot and a Predictable Resolution
Well, we had just been through a massive national drama. That drama reached a fever pitch toward the end of last week, and then all of a sudden, the drama reached its climax when the House of Representatives passed under Republican leadership, under the leadership of a Republican Speaker of the House, passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling after there had been a negotiation between the Republican Speaker and the Democratic President of the United States, Joe Biden.
The Biden administration, the President himself has said that he would not negotiate until at the end. He and the Speaker rather personally, with their teams, reached an agreement. There was a negotiation and then there was the high drama, the tension as to whether or not the Speaker would get enough votes in the house to pass the bill.
He did, but that meant an awful lot of Democratic votes and the loss of a lot of Republican votes. Then the question is what would the Senate do? Then the Senate did exactly what the Senate, according to the script, had to do. The Senate also passed the legislation, but with senators on the right and senators on the left saying no. It was the center that held.
But then Joe Biden, the President of the United States, the Democrat who had built his political brand on dealmaking and his ability to pull a brand out of the fire at the last minute, Joe Biden celebrated the victory by announcing to a nationwide television audience from the Oval Office. The first address this president had given from the Oval Office, he announced that he would be signing the bill. He did so the next day and disaster was averted. The lights did not go out. The nation's debt limit was not exceeded. The nation did not default on its debt. There was salvation at last.
But, and it may seem a strange time to raise this question, but I think actually, it's precisely the right time to raise this question, what if it was all just for drama? What if it was all just basically a dramatic presentation delivered to us by politicians aided and abetted by the media? What if it was all a show? Now, to be sure, I want to be clear, there's more to it than a show, but when it comes to politics, there is never less to it than a show. As a matter of fact, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, there was the understanding that statesmanship requires no small amount of dramatic ability, even showmanship. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference. Sometimes this would lead to a certain cynical understanding of politics, and sometimes, a cynical understanding of politics is exactly what honesty requires.
In this sense, I am reminded of a line from the comedian Lily Tomlin who said back in the 1970s, "I'm trying to be cynical, but it's hard to keep up." Sometimes when it comes to the nation's politics, it is hard to keep up when it comes to trying to be cynical. Now, let me just rush to say that cynicism is not an appropriate, it's not an acceptable worldview for a Christian.
That's a profoundly non-Christian worldview, but there are moments of cynical insight when only that kind of realism actually applies, and that's what we're looking at in this case, or at least it's partly true in this case, or at least in this case, it's true in this part or another part. We may never know and that's another cynical observation about the entire process. But why might there be the theory? Why would we consider on The Briefing today the theory that the entire thing was largely a manufactured drama? It is because at least in part, it undeniably was.
Now what's the reality that was facing the nation? Why was it legitimately important? It's because the debt limit is a matter of the government's authorization for a total amount of debt the nation can take on at any given time, and indeed, it's more than that, at any given time and throughout an interval that will be set by the legislation establishing the debt limit. The new debt limit that was achieved by this negotiation will take the nation only into early 2025 after the next presidential election.
In other words, don't forget what we're talking about here because in fairly short order, it's almost sure that we're going to be talking about it again. Both sides, by the way, made the calculation that when this comes around again, they might be or their party might be in a stronger position to make their own assertions at that time than they were in May and June of 2023. What do I mean by arguing that much of this was just a drama?
Again, it wasn't all just drama. There is a reality to the debt ceiling. There's an important political principle here, one that conservatives, that Republicans had better not let go of. They have been lampooned for insisting upon the fact that the debt ceiling, the debt limit is a real thing and that the legislature must approve any increase in the net federal debt. That is a very legitimate point and is one of the very few bargaining chips that conservatives still have when it comes to the equation of federal spending and federal borrowing. But we also need to acknowledge honestly that there was no foundational cut to the nation's spending nor a foundational cut to the nation's debt crisis. All that just gets postponed, but both sides were able to claim a victory, and that's where the dramatic part comes in.
So dramatic consideration number one, why did this vote take place when it did? Because as you just look at the political equation, the Democrats, back before the midterm elections in 2022 in November, they could have adopted legislation that would have affirmed a raise in the debt ceiling and forwarded that until some future point at which the issue would come up again. They could have done it when they had a Democratic president, they had a Democratic Speaker of the House, and the Democrats controlled the Senate.
Now, they still control the Senate in the White House, but they lost the House to Republican leadership. So one of the interesting questions behind the dimension of drama, the fact that this is largely for political show is, why didn't the Democrats deal with this issue when they could have dealt with it with very little or at least less opposition from Republicans? The answer to that is actually different than what Democrats will tell you it is.
The answer to that is that number one, President Biden wanted to be able to come out of this as the consummate dealmaker. You can't do that unless there's a crisis. The other dimension to this on the Democratic side is that involving the Republicans in the context of 2023 gives at least many Democrats on the left an option of opposing the deal without opposing their own party.
If indeed the leadership of the Democratic Party head back and say, mid-2022 brought this kind of deal, well, the Democrats would've had to take total responsibility for it and that's totally what they don't want to do. Okay, but let's just look at how the deal was announced. Who were the big winners here? Well, the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States, in political terms, both won. At least in the short term, both won big.
President Biden got exactly what he wanted according to his dramatic script. He got to sign the legislation, claim the victory, to give a speech from the Oval Office, to look presidential, to claim statesmanship, and to have, at least in his own mind, burnished his reputation as a consummate dealmaker of decades in the making. He also got to make himself appear to have risk losing support from the Democratic left in order to achieve this deal.
Okay, the Speaker of the House, California Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, remember it took 15 ballots for him to be elected Speaker of the House among Republicans that took that many ballots and thus it had been argued he would be coming into the Speakership with a weak position, playing a weak hand. But he didn't play this like a weak hand. He actually played this in a very interesting way, positioning himself as the Speaker of the House basically as going mano a mano, man to man with the White House, with the President of the United States to establish a deal.
In so many ways, the deal's described as a deal between the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States. That's a rarefied political altitude for any Speaker of the House, much less the Speaker of the House of the opposing party who just barely, after multiple ballots, gained ascension to that constitutional role. Speaker McCarthy is now reaping all kinds of political rewards and pundits in the media for being a statesman who pulled out this kind of negotiation and demonstrated himself to be perhaps even a Speaker of the House of historic proportions. Now, that's a big jump from just earlier this year when people were wondering if he could hold onto the position.
But speaking of holding on, hold on just a minute. Now, we often discuss President Biden and the fact that he is largely beholden to the left wing of his party, but the left wing of his party was, at least in public consternation, outraged by this deal and thus in the House and in the Senate, many of those on the Democratic progressive left identified that way. They didn't vote for the deal. They voted against it. So was the President really here out on a limb?
Hold that thought for just a moment. Look at the mirror image on the Republican side. One of the big issues going into this negotiation was the question as to whether or not the Speaker of the House, as the Republican leaders, well as the House Speaker, could deliver enough Republican votes and bring about enough Republican cohesion to actually reach any deal with the White House.
Well, the deal was reached and then the deal was sold, but it did depend upon an incredible number of Democratic votes to get the vote through. Therefore, it is argued the Republican right, the more conservative wing in its different parts of the Republican Party is outraged at the Speaker and the Speaker is in a very tenuous position. Is that right or is that wrong? Well, we will find out.
But the reason I set it up this way is that if you're looking at this in terms of its dramatic effect and everyone pretty much playing the role that should have been anticipated, the fact that this measure got through the House and the Senate with this negotiation between the Speaker and the President in two different parties, it achieved the ability of some people to claim they are a bipartisan middle and on issues like this, they can work together and that was sufficient to get the measure through both the House and the Senate.
But it also allowed those on both the right and the left, the Republican right and the Democratic left, to say that they were standing on principle by opposing the same deal when frankly, opposing it stood very little risk of default because they knew that there would be enough Democratic and Republican votes together to get the measure through. Therefore, they could vote against it and score their own political points, making their own political arguments, burnishing their own political brand.
You could look at it cynically to say just about everyone in the political system of the House and the Senate and the presidency got exactly what he or she wanted. At least from a Christian worldview perspective, we need to understand a couple of things. One of them is that leadership, to some extent, is always a matter of at least a little drama and at least a little of the dramatic.
Sometimes this is absolutely necessary as when a leader has to appear more courageous than he actually is simply to avoid panic on the part of the people he is leading. Or you could also say the ability to inspire, the ability to encourage. Just think of military leaders like George S. Patton, the American Army general who was known for being able to turn around the morale of a unit of the army just based upon one speech and his own personal example, sometimes, by the way, a rather reckless example, but nonetheless very effective in creating memory.
But even as Christians understand that the drama is at least a part of the leadership, we understand that the drama can't be the entirety of it. When it comes to our understanding of our constitutional system of government, this debt ceiling is actually a very important, very necessary measure even if you can pretty much write the script of what's going to happen when the issue of the debt ceiling comes up as a national crisis every couple of years or so.
I did not raise all of this in order to make us all the more cynical about government because it's actually about the human race. It's actually about the fallen sinful human condition. It's actually with a bit of even irony that is tinged with a bit of humor. It's just to understand that human beings being human beings do this kind of stuff. Meanwhile, the problem of out of control federal spending continues. Meanwhile, the problem of irresponsible borrowing and the national debt ballooning at the expense of our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, all of that should be a great moral concern to us.
Furthermore, there are legitimate criticisms of this deal, particularly the fact that defense spending could actually be decreased because of an inflationary mechanism built into this. In other words, as inflation goes up, this spending does not go up in a way that is commensurate with inflation and this at a time when we're looking at an unprecedented war in Europe and we're looking at increased threat from China. You could just go down the list.
There are legitimate problems. Indeed, there are huge problems facing the nation and this deal does not solve them. It just does what politics so often does. To use an overworn metaphor, it just kicks the can a little bit further down the road. So again, in conclusion, I'm saying the moral issues are very legitimate. The political issues are very legitimate, but it's also very legitimate to note that just about everyone in this vast political drama played exactly the role following almost exactly the script you could have anticipated before any of the speeches were given and any of the votes were taken.
A Parable of America’s Fracturing Entertainment Culture: What the Viewership of the Finale of ‘Succession’ Teaches About the American Public and New Media
But next, while we're talking about drama, let's talk about an actual drama, in this case, the HBO drama, Succession, which just recently came to a conclusion.
You know the program because you've heard the controversy. You've heard the conversation about it. It was the HBO drama about a media mogul who was aging and for that matter, all kinds of moral issues related to his leadership, how he put that media empire together, but succession was the big drama about Succession. Who would follow him? It was about his own children and the fight for power between them, executives in the company.
It might make you think of someone who actually is a media mogul behind a major television network. That wasn't accidental, but the program, Succession, nonetheless, was one that was widely discussed, a great deal of cultural fascination. One of the things to note here is that one of the reasons the media was so fascinated by this program is because this program was about, oh, wait for it, the media. But I'm looking at this in order to understand some historical context.
I did not watch Succession, so I can't tell you if the conclusion was satisfactory. I can simply tell you that millions of Americans evidently decided it was important enough to watch and find out. But the real reason I'm mentioning this is just to take another dimension of what it means to be human and to be so drawn to a story. But the big issue here is not how many watched the final episode of Succession, but how that number pales over against previous historical marks in American entertainment.
This tells us something about how our entertainment culture has changed. Go back to November the 21st, 1980. Now, some of you can't go back that far except in thinking about history before you existed, but nonetheless, go with me on this. Some of you are old enough to remember November the 21st, 1980 and that was when there was the revelation of the huge question that had gripped America at that time, who was it who shot J.R. Ewing?
Another financial magnate, another sibling rivalry, another fight for succession, but in this case, JR Ewing was shot and the question was who did it? I'm not going to tell you who, but I'm going to tell you 83 million Americans watched that episode when it aired, 83 million. That is a multiple, multiple of those who have or are likely ever to watch the final episode of Succession.
That just points to the fracturing of America's entertainment culture. This is really not a moral issue, good or bad, yes or no. It is, however, an issue that reminds us that Americans are no longer united in a common conversation about the culture. It's much more diverse now. Americans are fractured into different streaming services and different entertainment choices. We're now marked by so many choices that the numbers are likely never to reach what was reached for the who shot J.R. Ewing episode of Dallas.
That program and that numbers was rather significantly eclipsed by the viewership of the last episode of the TV series known as M*A*S*H that came on the final day of February in 1983. It came just a matter of a couple of years after the who shot J.R. Ewing episode of Dallas and 106 million Americans watched that final episode when it was aired, 106 million. That's at a time when America's population was something like 215 million, which meant that more than one out of three Americans watched that program simultaneously as it was aired.
I don't even raise this in order to say there once was a golden age of American media. M*A*S*H was itself rather cynical and politically, it represented a very liberal viewpoint. Dallas was basically a primetime television soap opera and frankly, it tells you a lot about the passage of time in America that many people listening to me call it a soap opera don't actually know what a soap opera was.
Let's just say it was a drama that exaggerated human relational issues and moral or immoral behavior and elaborated it over a very long period of time for maximum effect and prurient interest. I guess having gone this far, I've got to say the reason they were called soap operas is because they were shown in primetime television back in the age of black and white television in particular and many of the commercials were for soap and they were dramatic as in operas, thus soap operas.
They were so ubiquitous in American culture at the time that people actually stopped calling them soap operas and just referred to them as soaps. But that brings us around to another observation about what it means to be homo narratus or the human being as the storyteller and the one who's very interested in watching stories. We are drawn to particular kinds of stories, at least if you watch our television and our viewing habits.
Many of those stories are stories with a very distorted morality. Now, as you go back to Shakespeare, even to the ancient Greeks, you'll discover that many of those dramas were actually ones that involved very immoral behavior, but were represented in a moral context. But now, as you're looking at so much of what people in the United States and elsewhere watch, it's just about the scandalous behavior and what's missing is any moral judgment and any moral context. It turns out the numbers aren't the only part of this television or this viewing picture that is fractured.
Stories and the Imago Dei: Humans Are Storytelling Creatures — And Our Place in God's Story Matters Most
Okay, but then I have to turn to something I've never turned to before and that's an advice column about the media. You don't see many of those. The television Q&A column that appeared in the Tribune News Service I saw at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel just a few days ago when I was in Florida. Rich Heldenfels is the columnist.
The question he was considering sent in by a reader was this, "Shouldn't television producers be required to resolve major questions before a series is removed from viewing? Not alone, but probably the most annoying was Colony," this writer says, "which created an entire set of circumstances and never resolved anything." I'm not even sure what caught my attention there, except the fact that what you see in writing that letter, which is frankly a bit irrational in believing that somehow we should turn to the government to force the producers of our media to come up with satisfactory endings.
I'm raising it because it really does point to something which is a deep human quest. Not only are we fascinated by stories and drawn to them. Just think about those little people in the footed pajamas who just can't wait to crawl into your lap to hear a story.
It starts so, so early and in human experience, the fascination with a story is never over. At least Christians need to understand that a part of that is being made in the image of God. We are drawn into a story. We find our identity in a storyline and we do want that storyline to be satisfactory. The problem is, and here's where the storyline of God's word makes the truth abundantly clear, given the reality of sin, left to ourselves, that storyline can be nothing short and nothing other than catastrophic.
The big question for human beings is not who shot J.R. and is not the final episode of Succession or any other program. The big question for all of us is the end of the story or what we know and believe and stake our lives to be the end of the story. Here's where Christians understand the promise of Scripture, the promise of the gospel that we really do know and we can absolutely count upon the fact that the great storyline is going to end in a way that is completely resolved.
There will be a perfect resolution to the story and that's going to come on the day of the Lord, when the Lord executes justice and when his justice and his mercy are demonstrated in fullness and when, as Christians understand, for the redeemed, there comes the promise of the kingdom of Christ realized in full, a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven. The resolution of this is so perfect that as the Scripture promises, every eye will be dry, this is speaking for believers, and every tear will be wiped away.
This is where Christians understand that if it's a merely human story, even if there's an attempt at a literary or even in literary terms, a moral resolution and everyone supposedly lives happily ever after, that's not the real human story and that's not how the real human story is going to end, but for the gospel of Jesus Christ and those who come to know salvation through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming. What will be the viewership of that episode? Every single human being who has ever lived.
There you have it somehow in one episode of The Briefing, all the way from the debt crisis and the Oval Office to the dawning day of the Lord. It took a while to get there, but thanks for listening.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.