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In American History slogans, catch phrases, and grand titles have often come to serve as signposts marking out eras and pointing the way to popular notions of what passes for an understanding of the national mood or circumstance in a particular period of time. Examples include: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!” a slogan which spurred us on to our first undeclared war against the Barbary Pirates. “Remember the Maine!” a slogan used by the newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century to gin up support for a war against Spain, and a war which launched the United States as a colonial power. “The Square Deal,” the “New Deal,” the “Fair Deal,” and the “Great Society” all designate government programs aimed at the redistribution of wealth, and of course “Camelot” immediately brings forth visions of the youthful, inspiring, inept, and immoral Kennedy years.
In an effort to advance the cause of verbal economy by recycling a catch phrase from the past, I propose that we label House Speaker John Boehner’s proposed plan for raising the debt limit as “The Corrupt Bargain.”
Looking back the original Corrupt Bargain refers to the compromise which defeated a hero, elected a president, and ultimately led to that president’s defeat.
In 1824, as today, America’s political system was under unbearable stress. There were two major political parties; the Federalists who were the political descendants of Hamilton and the centralized government party and the Democratic-Republicans who were the political heirs of Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists.
During the election of 1824 the Federalists collapsed as a party while there were five major candidates and scores of minor ones running as Democratic-Republicans. The candidate officially backed by the Democratic-Republican Party was William H. Crawford, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Monroe. He had been chosen by the Democratic-Republican Caucus in Congress and had little popular support.
The confusing outcome of this election showed the growing power of an electorate fast outgrowing the original restrictive voting practices of the Federalist era and beginning to display the impact of mass appeal campaigning. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the battle of New Orleans came out on top with Ninety-nine electoral votes and 43% of the popular vote. John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president and Monroe’ secretary of state, won eighty-four electoral votes and 30% of the popular vote. Crawford won forty-one electoral votes. Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House came in fourth with thirty seven electoral votes. Since no one had enough electoral votes to win, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. They had to choose between the top three candidates, which immediately disqualified Clay, and since Crawford had very little popular support it was immediately seen as a contest between Jackson and Adams.
In this situation Clay, as Speaker of the House, held the commanding position. He held similar views in most areas to Adams and had actually split that wing of the party siphoning off enough votes to deny Adams a win. However, Clay was an outspoken opponent of Jackson ,and after more than a month of bargaining he threw his support behind Adams securing his election as the sixth president. Adams then appointed Clay as his Secretary of State a post that had been the stepping-stone to office for the four previous presidents.
While this politically expedient arrangement worked well for the election it did not work out so well for the administration or for the future of either Adams or Clay. The supporters of Jackson branded it as the “Corrupt Bargain” and used it to immediately launch the bitter 1828 presidential campaign. The Jackson Democrats pointed to the Adams-Clay bargain as the symbol of a corrupt system wherein Washington elites disregarded the will and interests of the people to pursue their own ends.
All of which brings us to Speaker Boehner and his various plans, trial balloons, and phone interviews he is presenting to the nation as a means of raising the debt limit. And make no mistake about it that is his goal. He is a career politician and a quintessential Washington insider. He and the other leaders of the Republican Congressional Caucus are as attuned to the voice of their constituents as the Democratic-Republican Caucus was in 1824. The grassroots Tea Party which swept the 2010 elections and which made him Speaker clearly want an end to yearly deficits and to an ever-increasing debt. Yet every plan the perpetually-re-elected Republicans present including Paul Ryan’s, merely cuts the present deficit and slows the growth of the debt, but they do not end the deficit spending or reduce the debt. In other words they propose to drive us to the poor-house a little slower than their Democrat opponents.
These same neo-conservative progressives caved during the lame duck session after the paradigm shifting election of 2010 breathing life into the freshly hobbled Obama Administration by agreeing to a stealth stimulus in return for an extension of all the Bush tax cuts. They caved during the series of continuing resolution battles allowing more spending in exchange for cuts in discontinued programs and layoffs of none-existent federal workers. They have either colluded or have been out-maneuvered by an administration determined to fundamentally transform America.
Now they stand with the strongest card conservatives have held since the Clinton impeachment debacle. A card dealt by the hard work and strategies of the Tea Party. This card is the ability of the House to just say no to any more deficit spending. By refusing to pass a bill to raise the debt limit the House can stop our slide into the financial abyss. When a shopaholic has maxed out all their credit cards and reached the limit of their available lines of credit the answer is not to give them a higher limit or new cards.
Yes, the alternative will be tough but we have spent our way into this corner and we have to work and save our way out. Since neither party seems willing to drain the swamp it is time to flood the swamp with calls, letters, and visits. Demand that our representatives represent us and not themselves or their fellow insiders. Stop the deficits! Pay down the debt! And don’t make a Corrupt Bargain that will lead us and our posterity further down the road to serfdom. Don’t sacrifice the future for the expediency of the present. Don’t mortgage the innocent lives of the unborn for the fleeting luxury of a self-indulgent present or we will all endure a shabby future in a second-rate Chinese financial dependency that was once the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com View the trailer for Dr. Owens’ latest book @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ypkoS0gGn8 © 2011 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.