President Obama's speech yesterday started out fine—he described the depths of our national debt problem fairly well in the first third of the address—but then the wheels came off the wagon when he began to describe Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's 2012 budget proposal, which was unveiled last week.
He began by saying Ryan's plan would result in "up to 50 million Americans [losing] their health insurance," because the GOP would "end Medicare as we know it." Then he just couldn't help himself: He said those millions would include grandparents who couldn't afford to go to nursing homes, poor children with Down syndrome, and autism, and the profoundly disabled. "These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves," he told the nation yesterday. What he didn't say is that not reforming Medicare—by keeping "Medicare as we know it"—we would actually be hurting our most vulnerable citizens, because Medicare "as we know it" is not sustainable. Disagreeing with Republicans on Medicare is fine; throwing the profoundly disabled into the debate is a bad move.
Similarly, in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress that Republican cuts to foreign aid would be "devastating" and "detrimental" to our national security. Then, last month, the head of U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that those same cuts to foreign aid would "lead to 70,000 kids dying." Yet foreign aid accounts for only 1 percent of the federal budget, according to 2010 Office of Management and Budget figures. To say reducing less than 1 percent of the budget would be "devastating" to national security doesn't pass the smell test; saying Republican cuts would actually kill tens of thousands of children doesn't pass the decency test. When Obama and members of his administration make statements like these, they show that they're willing to say just about anything to keep the spending going. That's a big mistake. [See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]
Here's another mistake: allowing outside groups to take the rhetoric even further. The liberal group American Family Voices ran a television ad here in Washington, D.C., which aimed to stop GOP cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. In it, a man in a suit (no doubt a Republican) places three jars, labeled "dioxin," "mercury," and "arsenic," in front of a baby. An announcer says, "If the EPA wasn't cleaning millions of toxic particles out of the air, they'd be going, well, somewhere else." At this point, the man feeds the baby a heaping spoonful of arsenic, and the baby swallows it. I'll bet most people turn off their TVs in disgust. I know I did. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
The error in calling Republicans child-killers, in third-party ads or congressional testimony, is that it plays right into Ryan's hands. His budget contains specifics for reducing the deficit, cutting Pentagon spending, reforming welfare, saving Medicaid and Medicare, rewriting the tax code, and putting tough long-term spending caps in place. Unlike Ryan's plan, Obama's leaves reforming Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security for another day while attacking Republicans on the "autistic kids" front. Before Ryan released his plan, he predicted that Democrats would do exactly what they're doing. "We are giving them a political weapon . . . to use against us in the next election, and shame on them if they do that," he said.
When Democrats take that weapon out of his hands and use it against him—just as he predicted—it makes Ryan seem like the kind of leader we haven't seen in a while, the type who will stand up and take a hit for what he believes. And it makes his opponents look weak and, frankly, not very smart.
That's because there's a larger misjudgment here: By using outrageous rhetoric and inflammatory arguments, Democrats continue to turn off voters who are exhausted by all the name-calling, mudslinging, and gridlock in Washington. It's no accident that congressional disapproval ratings have outpaced approvals for a while. The public's impatience with all the excuses, arrogance, and inaction is growing. No wonder this week's Reuters/Ipsos poll shows a whopping 69 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Just get it done, people seem to be saying; enough with all the nonsense. [See who donates the most money to Paul Ryan.]