At the End of the Day, Debt Discourse Was a Crap Sandwich

At the End of the Day, Debt Discourse Was a Crap Sandwich

By Carl M. Cannon - August 5, 2011

This column comes with a warning: It contains a couple of bad words. Don't blame me; blame Emmanuel Cleaver, a pastor from Kansas City who moonlights as a congressman. Or, perhaps the fault accrues to John Boehner, the speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi didn't help, either: But more on them later.

Like most journalists of my generation, I don’t go for crude language in print -- the phrase “family newspaper” was drilled into me from journalism school onward. But my own kids cuss like sailors (I wonder where they got that?) and the quality of the national conversation on the debt ceiling was so debased that apologies for a four-letter word may not be necessary.

In the past few years, the comment sections of online news outlets have coarsened our political discourse, as have the ubiquitous “talking points” each political party hurls at the other like harpoons. Technological changes have also helped proliferate the parties’ pre-canned sound bites, verbal spitballs that usually constitute little more than name-calling, some of it so vile it would constitute a criminal offense in many countries.

Depending on one’s viewpoint on deficit spending, the Tea Party types in Congress who took the nation to the brink of default could reasonably be described as misguided ideologues lacking in a grasp of basic mathematics. That would be a fair criticism, it seems to me. Or one could, as two New York Times columnists did, compare them to Hezbollah or serial killers. This type of argumentation was the rule, rather than the exception. In the past few days, prominent Democratic officeholders and liberal journalists have called the House Republicans -- these are direct quotes -- “terrorists,” “jihadists,” “carjackers,” “suicide bombers,” “vampires,” “nihilists,” “extremists,” “tyrants,” “extortionists,” and “traitors . . . who want to end life as we know it on this planet.”

From the president on down, Democratic officeholders consistently complained that Republicans have held a gun to their heads. Their words, not mine. “The debt ceiling should not be something that is used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners,” Obama said last month. “We’re being told to make a decision with a gun to our heads,” Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said this week.

Democrats used this kind of language even as they welcomed wounded Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords back on the floor of the House, where she voted for the deficit compromise. After Giffords was grievously wounded in January when she was actually, not metaphorically, shot in the head by a deranged gunman.

Back then, some of the same liberal critics who are now directing hate speech at Tea Partiers over their tax policies excoriated conservatives for fomenting a climate of violence with their rhetoric. Some of them actually blamed Republicans for the violence in Tucson. It turned out the gunman was not a Tea Party type -- or politically motivated at all -- and President Obama went to Arizona and gave a healing speech, one of the best-received of his presidency. Obama urged Americans to temper their partisanship and to address each other “in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

For the most part, the president followed his own advice during the debt debate, a decision that must have left him feeling lonely at times. Obama did commit numerous transgressions against the English language, however. These lapses tended to be venial, not mortal, sins -- and it must also be said that, here, the president had plenty of company.

The clichés were as thick as, well, flies on “a Satan sandwich.” At one press conference, the president mixed his metaphors back-to-back, separated only by an unseen verbal comma. “We might as well do it now,” Obama said of a long-term debt ceiling solution. “Pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas.”

Blogging for Washington Monthly’s online site, writer Jamie Malanowski was inspired to pen a ditty:

Time to pull off the band aid
Time we ate our peas
Time we pulled off the band aid, Eric
Time we ate our peas
If we don’t pull off that band aid now
We’ll all be speaking Chinese.

The “Eric” in the song is apparently Rep. Eric Cantor, whose own description of the political process brought to mind a recalcitrant child. (“The debt limit vote sucks,” he reportedly complained to his follow Republicans.)

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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