I’m with Joe Biden on this one. Budget speeches make me fall asleep, too. Whether I was discussing them on the radio or debating them on the floor of Congress, the end result was always the same — I was bored to tears. I feel about budget talks the way Will Rogers did about rope tricks when he said, “There’s no such thing as a good one.”
There are probably two reasons most of us feel like dozing off during a budget battle. First, there is nothing in the present debate between Democrats and Republicans that we have not heard many, many times before. Substitute names and numbers, and the current confrontation between President Obama and Speaker Boehner could be a replay of Clinton and Gingrich or George H.W. Bush and George Mitchell or Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Yes, the deficits are now structural and not cyclical and the long-term consequences of doing nothing are more dire but it is still the same circus in a different tent. Higher taxes vs. deeper spending cuts, creating wealth vs. redistributing it, rich vs. poor … zzzzzzz.
The second reason is that unlike a good political dust-up over a war or a particularly divisive social issue, fiscal fights are almost always devoid of any passion or pageantry whatsoever. Military generals and attorneys general we pay attention to. Comptroller generals? Zzzzzz. The two notable exceptions to this rule are Ronald Reagan and the tea party activists who framed their budget issues as a struggle between individual liberty and big government tyranny. So you either need an extremely gifted messenger or an extremely agitated crowd to win your arguments, because government’s true staying power is not just that it’s so big. It is also that it is so mind-numbingly boring. Unless you are a committed partisan or feeding your family on a federal paycheck, after a while you tune out and the game defaults to the defenders of the status quo.
This is why I cannot join the growing chorus of conservative pundits and right-minded talk show hosts who were outraged by President Obama’s budget address. I loved it.
Knowing that a sober, adult analysis of revenues as a percentage of GDP would induce a coast to coast coma, the commander in chief resorted to what he does best: shrill personal and partisan attacks. Dude threw down. Instead of rebutting Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals, the president reloaded and then strafed Republicans randomly with a barrage of ammo left behind by every Democrat since FDR. The GOP budget, he ranted, sends a clear message to our children, our seniors, and our poor. If you are in the dawn of life, the twilight of life, or the shadow of life, it’s lights out. Republicans only care about virgins and venture capitalists.
Paul Ryan was actually hurt by the president’s remarks. He expected better. He somehow believed he and the GOP leadership were now players in the budget game and not tackling dummies. What he and Speaker Boehner don’t seem to realize yet is what a gift the Republicans in Congress have been given. With his speech at GWU which was long on invective and short on inspiration, the president essentially ceded all the high ground on fiscal matters to the opposition. He announced he does not want a solution to America’s deficit and debt crisis. He’d rather have an issue for his re-election campaign.
He even gave us all a clue to his real intent when he dispatched his campaign guru, David Plouffe, to the Sunday talk mart to preview his remarks. Usually discussing a subject this momentous falls to Chief of Staff William Daley or OMB Director Jack Lew, who had just finished the CR details with Speaker Boehner. But if politics and not policy are now calling the shots at the White House, somebody in the basement must be reading some pretty grim polling data. If the president has to tack this hard to the left to hold his base, how does he expect to win back the independents who elected him in 2008?
This means that for the time being when it comes to budget debates on the debt ceiling, the next fiscal year, or any long-term strategy on entitlements, discretionary spending, and debt, the Republicans are the only adults in the room. Obama, who already has a reputation for voting present, is now not even bothering to show up.
Boehner kept his cool during the short term CR negotiations and so far has planned his work well. Now he needs to work his plan. He needs to keep his House members united on a GOP budget consensus that continues to fill the vacuum left by the White House. Based on last fall’s election and continuing public alarm over the state of the economy, the Republicans still have the support of the mob. But who should the messenger be?
Unfortunately, from my perspective, Ryan may not be the best man for the job. To the casual consumer of political debate, Ryan is conscientious but not terribly charismatic in carrying the budget message. Sorry, but he does not invite comparisons to Ronald Reagan.
In fact, and forgive me if this seems unkind, the celebrity I think of whenever I watch Ryan on TV is Jon Cryer, the self-effacing, overly intellectual co-star on Two and a Half Men. I like this analogy because it also suggests that Barack Obama is like Charlie Sheen: fascinating to watch, in love with his own image, and possibly about to have his series cancelled.