"Tea party" activists participate in a small rally on Capitol… (Shawn Thew, European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from McLean, Va. — This upscale mall in the suburbs of northern Virginia is just 13 miles from the nation's capital. But in the eyes of people here trying to live their lives while Congress and the president bludgeon each other over the debt ceiling, it might as well be 13 million.
"Lunacy … embarrassment … clowns."
Those were the reviews of Washington's performance from beltway-adjacent Americans interviewed this week as the country barreled toward the financial cliff. Few thought it would ever get this far — just days to go before the government defaults on its debt. Everyone, regardless of party or persuasion, agreed the my-way-or-the-highway tactics intolerable on a playground were beneath a nation desperately seeking statesmanship.
"Because at some point, it's going to be the highway," said William Kelly, 42, an information technology specialist with a once-secure government job that all of a sudden didn't feel so secure. "People voted for change, not chaos."
Many worried about the image of America beamed from Washington to the rest of the world: a great nation toying with self-inflicted calamity, like middle schoolers with a loaded gun.
"It's shameful. They are clowns. Everyone wants to be the winner without giving any ground," said Kathleen Smith, 67, a retired teacher, who, like a lot of residents in this company town, is an avid follower of political news. But she skipped Monday's dueling speeches from President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), convinced that short of an agreement, nothing they had to say was worth hearing.
Across the political spectrum, the sentiments expressed could best be summed up as disgust. There were those who thought Obama's only concern was reelection and those who thought Republicans would reject anything the president agreed to — even if they liked it — just to make him look bad.
Many yearned for the days, a bit idealized in retrospect, when Washington tended to work things out. That view was reflected in recent national polls: Nearly 70% surveyed want lawmakers to compromise, even if it means striking a deal they don't like. Less than a quarter say lawmakers should dig in, even if that means default.
The Greater Washington area, fat with government jobs and contracts, has been insulated from the worst of the economic downturn. The busy mall traffic was testament to that.
Yet people here understand the pain of those struggling to find work or make ends meet. A number of them said they were willing to pay more taxes if it meant digging the nation out of debt. They've had it up to here with politicians who listen to the fringes of their parties, then expound about what "Americans want" — citing, for instance, the "tea party" movement's steadfast resistance to any more taxes.
"Lunacy," said Warren Cohen, 66, of Fairfax. A retired small-businessman who still earns more than a quarter of a million a year, he is one of those people whose taxes Obama would raise.
"I can afford and am willing to pay more in taxes," Cohen said, concerned that a short-term remedy, as many House Republicans favor, would put the country through this wringer all over again in just a few months.
"Come on, guys," Kelly, the IT specialist, said to no one in particular, hanging his head over his taco plate. "We need a real solution."
Suzanne Flaherty, 45, had just had her hair done at the Paul Mitchell styling school where she goes to save money since giving up her job as an accountant to stay home with her daughter, Kaitlyn, 3. Kaitlyn and her grandmother Marcellyn Daly, 71, had just come from an American Girl store, where Kaitlyn didn't get one of the expensive dolls.
"She'll get a knockoff because we live within our means," her mother said.
Her point, of course, is that's what Washington needs to do. If this standoff accomplishes nothing else, this family agrees, it will have illuminated how cavalierly the debt ceiling has been raised over the decades.
"There is enough money if the government spends it wisely," said Daly, adding that Medicare, a big contributor to the soaring debt, shouldn't be touched. She thinks the default warnings are a giant bluff, and is still steamed that General Motors Co. didn't pay any taxes while struggling to emerge from bankruptcy.
They want this debt game over. It's getting old: a bunch of rich lawmakers playing chicken with the lives of people who can't afford it.
"They'll find a solution," Flaherty said, sounding tired. "But they'll wait until the 12th hour to do it."