Democratic Leaders' Explosive Words

Democratic Leaders' Explosive Words

By Carl M. Cannon - September 29, 2013

"What we're not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest—we're not going to do that," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer recently told CNN's Jake Tapper. "I believe the House Republicans are entirely responsible."

“One hundred percent?” Tapper asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Pfeiffer responded. “Absolutely.”

It’s hard to say which is worse: that so many prominent Democrats believe they aren’t responsible for any of Washington’s gridlock—or that they’d say these things anyway. Not all that long ago, a presidential spokesman using this language would be talking about murderers who hijacked airplanes or drove explosive-laden trucks into the barracks of U.S. Marines—not political opponents with differing notions about federal spending.

With suicide bombs going off daily around the world and funerals for the Washington Navy Yard victims still taking place, one might expect a modicum of rhetorical restraint from inside the White House. No such luck. For five years now, such metaphors have been the cudgel of choice for administration officials, along with their fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill and journalistic fellow travelers.

It all starts with President Obama, who routinely accuses Republicans trying to thwart his spending plans by putting “party ahead of country.” Last January, when talking—as Dan Pfeiffer was this week—about GOP insistence on trading spending cuts for agreeing to raise the nation’s debt limit—the president said he wouldn’t negotiate with those holding “a gun at the head of the American people.”

Joe Biden asserts Republicans are holding the country “hostage” with their spending stance, and in a 2011 meeting with congressional Democrats the vice president agreed with the suggestion that Tea Party groups were “terrorists.”

Among Democrats on Capitol Hill, it starts at the top, too.

Last week, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid compared Republican conservatives to “Thelma and Louise,” adding, “America will know exactly who to blame: Republican fanatics in the House and the Senate."

On the House side, such talk has long been a staple for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose default argument on fiscal or economic policy is to impugn conservatives’ patriotism. In 2008, she said it was “very unpatriotic” for Republicans to balk at a big bank bailout. Two years later, she lashed out at those resisting raising the debt ceiling: “Are these people not patriotic?”

Let’s stipulate that this type of talk obscures, rather than elucidates, the impasse in Washington. Let’s also stipulate, for the moment, that the leaders in both major political parties actually care about the country. So why has the budget process become an ongoing game of chicken?

Why do Republicans keep insisting on extracting concessions from Democrats in return for raising the debt limit, which, as Democrats point out, merely allows the government the legal authority to borrow money it’s already spent? Why do Democrats act as though refusing to negotiate on Obamacare is something to brag about?

Let’s start with the Republicans:

Almost universally, they consider the Affordable Care Act, which passed Congress on a party-line vote in 2010, a bad law. They believe the administration is prevaricating about its costs, and that its coercive aspects are anathema to a free people. Accordingly, many conservatives remain convinced the law is unconstitutional, regardless of the Supreme Court’s Talmudic finding to the contrary.

Republicans also can’t understand how the president can blithely announce a delay in the law’s business-related requirements while leaving the hated individual mandate intact. Republicans also point to public opinion polls showing the law to be unpopular with a majority of Americans.

Finally, they say that the GOP re-captured the House in 2010 in large part by promising to fight Obamacare. Many of these members come from districts that voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney, and they worry that if they do acquiesce to funding the thing, it’s likely they’d be knocked off in a Republican primary.

Some of those reasons are lousy—declining poll numbers is a particularly weak argument—while some are solid. None of them puts a rational person in mind of a suicide bomber, however, which brings us back to the Democrats. Why are they so adamant that they shouldn’t negotiate with Republicans?

Part of the problem is that Obama and his White House minions have no institutional memory. Obama recently told the Business Roundtable, “You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and nothing to do with the debt.”

This claim is wrong. First of all, the president is asserting that defunding the Affordable Care Act is unrelated to the budget or the burgeoning national debt—but this is exactly what Republicans say motivates them: ACA-mandated spending increases Democrats won’t acknowledge.

Even if one buys the president’s argument that Obamacare isn’t strictly a budget issue, the debt ceiling vote has been employed for 40 years—usually by congressional Democrats—to get leverage on policy issues ranging from campaign finance reform to war in Southeast Asia.

But Democrats do have legitimate reasons for holding fast. One of them is that setting budget policy under the deadline pressure of the debt ceiling is bad governance. Why? Because Republican leverage hinges on risking a defaulting on the nation’s debts, which would scare the bejesus out of the world’s financial markets, harming—among other things—the U.S. economy.

Democrats also argue that what Republicans are doing is fundamentally undemocratic. The ACA was passed into law, and signed by a president. Since that time, Republicans have recaptured the House, true, but Democrats have retained their Senate majority in two subsequent elections. Moreover, a Democratic president was re-elected in a campaign in which the GOP nominee said he’d do away with Obamacare via executive order his first day in office.

So it’s not that the Democrats don’t have a valid point of view. To my mind, they have the stronger arguments, which is why all their loose talk comparing Republicans to suicide bombers is so dispiriting. But then, as Harry Reid said himself, this isn’t really about winning the argument—it’s about winning the next election cycle. 

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

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