George C. Scott was one of America’s foremost stage and screen actors. His memorable portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton won him an Academy Award. Patton was as profane as he was professional, as feared by the enemy as he was famous on the home front. In one of Scott’s most memorable scenes in the film, with the war won in Europe, he goes over the top arguing in favor of war with the Soviet Union — then still an ally of the United States.
“In ten days I’ll have a war,” he says, “and I’ll make it look like their fault.”
It’s the perfect cinematic metaphor for the budget negotiations currently underway in Washington. With a lot of help from a compliant, even complicit national media, the Democrats are maneuvering their way towards a government shutdown — all the while making it look like it’s the Republicans’ fault.
The last Congress, overwhelmingly Democrat-controlled in both houses, failed to pass an actual budget resolution — let alone the various authorization and appropriations bills necessary to fund the federal government for the current fiscal year. Instead, to keep the government running, they have been forced to rely on a series of short-term measures known as “continuing resolutions.”
The process continued when the Republicans took control of the House — despite the fact that one of the first things the new GOP majority did was to pass a yearlong CR that cut federal spending by a significant amount, in keeping with the conviction among new members that the voters sent them to Washington to do exactly that.
The Senate, still controlled by the Democrats, has thus far failed to take up the year-long funding measure, leaving the two chambers engaged in a battle of wills. The House Republicans have put real cuts on the table. The Democrats in the upper chamber, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, can’t seem to find a thing worth cutting.
It may be, as was first reported by ABC News on Wednesday evening, that the logjam has finally broken, and a framework for a final CR is finally coming together. But that may only be because the Democrats have been caught in the embarrassing position of talking political strategy on a media conference call.
As The New York Times reported Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a senior member of his party, was caught instructing “his fellow senators on how to talk to reporters about the contentious budget process.”
After thanking his colleagues — Barbara Boxer of California, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — for doing the budget bidding for the Senate Democrats, who are facing off against the House Republicans over how to cut spending for the rest of the fiscal year, Mr. Schumer told them to portray John A. Boehner of Ohio, the speaker of the House, as painted into a box by the Tea Party, and to decry the spending cuts that he wants as extreme.
“I always use the word extreme,” Schumer said. “That is what the caucus instructed me to use this week.”
Having been caught playing politics with the nation’s economic future, the Democrats may have decided the better course is to cave quickly and hope the story goes away before it has a chance to resonate with voters.
Meanwhile, the White House has been largely silent through the whole process. And few in the media are willing to hold President Obama to account for his lack of leadership.
The real fight is over the spending bills that will determine what happens in the next fiscal year, a contest in which the spending cutters in the House will have significantly more leverage. The current battle is less about reining in spending and more about public relations — fulfilling campaign commitments and laying down benchmarks for the future.
Nevertheless, it should be severely damaging to the Democrats to be seen as the party obstructing efforts to solve the $14 trillion debt crisis in a way that is favorable to the interests of the taxpayers — instead of the special interests that still dominate Washington.