A Courage Deficit Leads to a Budget Deficit

In the month of December, the federal government paid the equivalent of $3.4 billion a day in interest on the national debt.

The nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, needed three months and the work of more than 2 million employees to generate $3.4 billion in profit.

Think about that.

It took all of the blue smocks and smiley faces, deep-discount bath tissue and pump shotguns at more than 3,800 stores in this country and thousands more around the world all of July, August and September to produce the same amount of wealth that the federal government needed for one day of debt service.

This week, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the federal government will end up borrowing another $1.48 trillion this year. That means that the size of our debt will grow to at least $14.3 trillion and interest payments could top $430 billion for the year.

What's even scarier is that the interest payments could grow well beyond that if international lenders, particularly our main creditors in Asia, begin asking for higher rates of return because of fears that America's not good for the money anymore.

The economies in Europe and Japan are already suffering badly because it costs them too much to borrow money because investors demand more in return for buying bonds. Just like an individual, a bad credit score means fewer options.

Money paid in interest is just gone. It's not like when the government buys a tank or hires a clerk to file papers. They're paying again for tanks already bought and clerks already hired. There's no benefit obtained to the real economy, just taxes paid by people and companies sucked up and sent to China.

America is like the guy who bought a set of cheap living room furniture on a high-interest installment plan. By the time he's finished paying, the furniture has long since fallen apart.

In this week of budget shock, economists have been standing around like a bunch of shade-tree mechanics peering under the hood and offering their diagnoses. The tax and welfare deal struck by the president and the Senate GOP, they say, has caused the deficit to spike. The economists mutter about growth rates, Treasury yields and expected income patterns before shuffling off.

But the root of problem here is not economic, but rather political.

And is so often the case in politics, it's a deficit of political courage that creates the budget deficit.

President Obama, with his eye on reelection, mostly passed on debt and deficit in his State of the Union speech. He generally said that reforming the bankrupt Social Security and Medicare systems would be good to do, by somebody, sometime. He also proposed to freeze 20 percent of the federal budget at existing levels for the next five years.

Both were quickly dismissed as small ball and rhetorical padding. Given that Obama proposed billions in new "investments" in global-warming initiatives and high-tech research, his muted notes about fiscal restraint got lost pretty quickly in a symphony of spending.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be afraid of attacking spending too sharply. They are happy to hector Obama about his own spending, but Republican leaders are so far resisting calls from more hawkish members to really lay down the line on spending.

The source of that fear is that GOPers saw what happened to Speaker Newt Gingrich when he picked a serious spending fight with Bill Clinton in 1995. Clinton took some lumps from voters for overspending, but Gingrich was quickly cast by the mainstream media as Snidely Whiplash, tying federal workers and Social Security recipients to the tracks. Clinton won, Gingrich lost, and the money got spent anyway.

Determined not to repeat Gingrich's mistakes, Republican Speaker John Boehner has been cautious about his looming fight with Obama over the federal debt ceiling, now just a few hundred billion dollars away. And as we've already established, the government can burn through that kind of cash faster than you can get through the express lane at Wal-Mart.

With the administration warning of a possible worldwide depression if the government's borrowing power is not increased, Republicans are treading lightly on the subject. But they also know that Republican primary voters will exact a heavy political price from those who vote to give the president more borrowing power.

The president, meanwhile, knows that fed up independent voters are sick and tired of the debt, deficits and spending. For him to recast himself as a man of fiscal restraint after his free-spending first two years, Obama needs to get past his request for more debt as quickly as possible.

As the president learned when, as a senator, he bashed his predecessor for asking for more lending power and then voted "no" on the request, the issue resonates powerfully with the American middle.

But, decades of political cowardice on issues of debt and spending have brought Democrats and Republicans alike to this moment. The coming weeks promise a fiscal fight not seen in this town for more than a decade, and there's no hiding.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News' digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.