As John Boehner was leaving from giving his response to the President’s speech on the debt, he was heard to say “I didn’t sign up for mano-a-mano with Obama.” Even he knew that his speech was small minded and weak compared to the President’s appeal to the public.
Regardless of who you think is right on the facts, Obama won the rhetorical war Monday night. After admitting that the debt was a bipartisan problem resulting from not living within our means, he described the situation like the average American would:
“This is no way to run the greatest country on Earth. It’s a dangerous game that we’ve never played before, and we can’t afford to play it now. Not when the jobs and livelihoods of so many families are at stake. We can’t allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington’s political warfare…Yes, many want government to start living within its means. And many are fed up with a system in which the deck seems stacked against middle-class Americans in favor of the wealthiest few. But do you know what people are fed up with most of all?
They’re fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word. They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And when these Americans come home at night, bone-tired, and turn on the news, all they see is the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington. They see leaders who can’t seem to come together and do what it takes to make life just a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They’re offended by that. And they should be. The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”
Speaker Boehner’s short five minute rebuttal was red meat for the tea partiers, using one liners like “Obama wants a blank check.” Never mind that the money has already been appropriated by Congress and Obama isn’t asking for more spending. It was partisan, put blame on Obama, and essentially gave a performance that looked like the kind of thing most Americans, especially independents, are sick of.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Boehner and Obama both. I think one reason Boehner’s performance was poor is that his heart wasn’t into the speech. It had to be written before they knew what Obama would say, so it was full of blame for the Democrats and claims that Obama was unwilling to make cuts. But that was in direct contradiction to what the public had just heard from the President:
“Let’s live within our means by making serious, historic cuts in government spending. Let’s cut domestic spending to the lowest level it’s been since Dwight Eisenhower was President. Let’s cut defense spending at the Pentagon by hundreds of billions of dollars. Let’s cut out waste and fraud in health care programs like Medicare — and at the same time, let’s make modest adjustments so that Medicare is still there for future generations. Finally, let’s ask the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to give up some of their breaks in the tax code and special deductions.”
I daresay that if Obama is serious about this — and I suspect he is (much to the dismay of many in his own party) — then most Republican rank and file would be thrilled. Yet the reason major cuts can’t happen is because Obama wants revenue enhancements — eliminating tax breaks and other so called loopholes — as part of the solution. It would only touch the wealthiest, and amount to only 15% of the spending cuts.
In that the GOP is playing a dangerous game. The gap between the middle class and the wealthiest Americans has been rising. The budget cuts and poor economy will cause continued and increasing pain among the poor and working class. Pain may be a metaphor, but in this case it’s also real — families will see their lives fundamentally altered in ways they would not have imagined just a few years ago. The argument that the wealthiest shouldn’t pay part of the price, given they’ve gained the most in the last 30 years (while the bottom 60% haven’t even kept up with inflation), will lose its appeal. When times are good the Republicans can say “they’re playing class war” and most people recoil. When times are bad, there very well could be “class warfare.”
Right now we’re at an historic point. We have a Democratic President who says we need severe budget cuts in order to stay solvent and be able to adapt to the demands of the 21st century. He’s taking on the left of his own party to make that case. He says we need structural reform of medicaid and medicare. He is calling for deep cuts in domestic spending. And all that Boehner can do is give a partisan speech and reject the package because the tea party wing in his own party won’t accept any new revenues?
Obama won the rhetorical war on Monday night with a call for citizens to contact their representatives and urge them to compromise (apparently the Congressional websites crashed from heavy volume right after his speech.) Boehner vowed to try to win a partisan war to avoid tackling the issues and put off the question to another day. His “super Congress” idea probably won’t yield anything not already discussed, it just buys him cover from the tea party faction of his own party.
I believe Boehner is better than that. He knows not making an historic compromise now will threaten the American dream and risk putting the US on a path towards further dysfunction and severe economic crisis. He has a good chance to win the partisan short term war and get his plan passed — but that might cause him to miss out on the long term compromise that’s needed to really get the country on the right track. It’s time to put political posturing aside and make an historic compromise. The economic future of the country is on the line.