House Speaker John Boehner appears to be under attack from an intransigent House Republican caucus that will not allow him to retain any credible leadership if he agrees to a debt and deficit reduction plan that includes any tax increases of any kind. While select Republicans in the Senate agree with the deficit commission recommendations and the Gang of Six proposal—which recognizes the need to increase revenues to deal with escalating deficits—, radicals refuse to agree to any compromise. It seems Speaker Boehner is being held hostage by a radical Tea Party revolt in his party, whom he is not prepared to anger.
Part of the problem is rhetorical. On issues of debt, deficit, entitlements and security, routine use of hyperbole has so distorted debate, that much political discourse now distorts what is actually happening in policy. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) told Meet the Press, falsely, that “the government is twice as big as it was ten years ago; it’s thirty percent bigger than it was when Pres. Obama took office.”
What Coburn is speaking about is the federal budget, and nearly the entire amount of the increases he cites are security related—specifically the costs of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with increases in Pentagon spending. Pres. Obama added massive new numbers to the federal budget, without adding any new spending, simply by reporting, for the first time, the spending for Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the budget.
Such distorted rhetoric, treating cost as “the size of government”, leads many conservatives to the mistaken view that tax dollars are being foolishly wasted on unnecessary programs, new hires, and intrusions into personal freedom. In fact, there are fewer government employees now than when Pres. Obama took office; in fact, Democrats are proposing sweeping reforms designed to reduce long-term debt and deficits; in fact, it is failure to fund the government that is causing the deficit to expand.
Sen. Coburn also repeated on Meet the Press the right-wing myth that Pres. Obama has been “unwilling to deal with entitlements”. When Pres. Obama’s healthcare reform process called for saving $500 billion in Medicare fraud, waste and abuse, over 10 years, Republicans ran vicious and false ads against him, claiming he was trying to “gut Medicare” and “cut benefits” for the elderly.
In fact, it has been Pres. Obama who has repeatedly proposed targeted Medicare reform, designed to roll back costs without cutting benefits. “Entitlements” is another keyword in the rhetorical distortion of Washington politics: entitlements are programs which some citizens are “entitled to” because they have funded them. By paying into Social Security and Medicare, or by virtue of one’s military service, one accumulates benefits that come later in life. There are many benefits to society of such a system, and the “entitlement” factor in the equation is really, and should be thought of as earned benefits.
Medicaid, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and SCHIP—which provides health insurance to underprivileged children—operate on a different logic. But, there is no way to eliminate spending on these without causing real and measurable harm to the overall economy. Even these “entitlement” programs are really designed to optimize the public cost of certain failures of the marketplace to optimize costs.
Our public discourse on “entitlements” is almost entirely driven by a narrow ideological view that anyone receiving entitlements is a parasite. In this climate, Speaker Boehner is trapped between the reason of the vast majority of people, who believe we cannot solve the mounting deficit crisis without addressing revenue shortfalls and the unreason of a radical Tea Party faction, a minority even of his own party, that will not support any increase in taxes, no matter the potentially virtuous impact on the nation’s economic fabric.
Last week, Boehner tried to move his position closer to a “grand bargain”, with Pres. Obama, who has sought to meet the demand of that reasoned majority; since Friday, he appears trapped behind a wall of intransigence, not of his own construction. Much of this may stem from the hardcore ideologically wishful mythologies that prevail in the use of rhetoric to deal with debt and deficit issues.
Doris Kearns Goodwin said, today, that people in the political center are often neglected by the heated political rhetoric that prevails in ideological debate. She noted that some have called for “raging centrists” who can represent the true voice of independents. Boehner has sought to be the skilled negotiator and the leader wise enough to recognize a good deal when he sees one, but it now appears his party will not allow him to lead in that way.
There are questions about whether the Boehner speakership is in jeopardy, whether his party will challenge his leadership, if he strays from their 2012 election strategy, which involves a programmatic refusal to cooperate with Pres. Obama. More radical Tea Partyists have adopted the irresponsible “blow it up” view, which holds that forcing default will ruin the government and allow them to rebuild it, according to their ideological preferences.
For the record, Tim Pawlenty proudly says he “did blow it up” when he was governor of Minnesota, leading to a debilitating government shutdown, the furlough of thousands of workers, negative impact to his state’s economy, and higher borrowing costs that could weigh on the state’s budget for years.
Economists agree that default would be catastrophic, and would lead to higher borrowing costs, exacerbating the problem and doing serious long-term harm to the wider economy. Andrea Mitchell said it is hard for her to understand how over 200 members of the House of Representatives swear an oath to refuse to raise taxes, before even evaluating the wisdom of specific policies on which negotiation will be necessary.
Historically, being a good legislator means being able to make the deal that moves official policy in the direction of your agenda. Many, including Republicans, are now urging Speaker Boehner to abandon the Tea Party radicals and work with moderate Republicans and Democrats to stave off catastrophic default.
Meet the Press moderator David Gregory quoted Winston Churchill, who said “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” Many political analysts believe we could do better, if there were more consideration given to non-ideological positions, which may actually represent the views of most Americans, regardless of their partisan voting habits. Independent voters are often credited with leading the debate from the political center, but have been boxed out of all talk on debt and deficit, with ideological distortions applied to polling numbers to obscure their views.
The debt-ceiling negotiations have thrown into high contrast the implied obligation that House Speaker Boeher join Pres. Obama and Senate Leader Reid as three principled centrists negotiating, as Boehner today told Chris Wallace, to do “what’s right for the country,” regardless of party preferences.
ABC News political correspondent Jonathan Karl today tweeted: “Boehner will face a revolt of his own leadership for grand bargain that increases revenue by 800B. Am told Cantor&McCarthy are opposed.” Mr. Boehner finds himself pressed by history to be a principled centrist, but standing alone between reason and unreason, and under attack from his own party.
He may even be facing the threat of a challenge from Eric Cantor (R-VA), who has used the debt debate to reposition himself as an ally of the Tea Party. Speaker Boehner did, however, say today that he did not come to Washington to “be a Congressman”, but to “do what is right for the country.” And he may now have to choose between the two.
The question is, ultimately, whether the American people can find a way to expand the space for the voice of reason, and reward principled moderates who make political sacrifices in service to “what is good for the country”.
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Originally published July 24, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com