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.]
The fact that the Democrat-led Congress did not pass a budget last year is not lost on voters. Earlier this year, they saw Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama all walk away from the Simpson-Bowles debt commission recommendations. Every time voters hear President Obama talking about the "false choices" that face us, they remember that he has yet to give us his own nonfalse choice for how to reform entitlements.
The White House is making a calculated gamble that the longer the budget fights drag out, through lengthy negotiations on the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, the more people will blame mean, "baby-killing" Republicans for reduced services—and the Democrats will win in a landslide in 2012. For decades, that playbook worked, and Democrats won't let it go. What they don't understand is that the world has changed. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
For the first time ever, we have more Americans working for the government than in manufacturing, farming, utilities, and mining combined. A majority of the states are in some degree of fiscal crisis. According to the National Taxpayers Union, the top 10 percent of taxpayers now pay 70 percent of federal income taxes. Fewer and fewer Americans pay federal income taxes, while more and more demand services. This fall, our national debt will exceed our nation's gross domestic product for the first time since World War II. Gallup reports new highs in the number of people citing the deficit as a top concern. The central issue of our time has become the debate over the size and scope of government in our lives because no one wants our children to be the first generation to inherit a nation worse off than the one we inherited. That's an issue that resonates with everyone from new immigrants to grandparents.
Republicans are winning Obama's gamble because the longer the budget fight drags on, the more people realize this isn't about how "mean" the GOP is, or even how to cut billions. As conservative columnist David Brooks puts it, Ryan's budget is really a new vision of the social contract in America; liberal columnist E.J. Dionne says we are now in the most important struggle over the role of government since the New Deal. This is about how to transform our safety net into something sustainable and flexible, how to promote economic growth in the long run, and how to give our children the best life possible. It's about shaking that enduring sense that something is deeply wrong and putting our country back on the right track.
People get it. It's the Democrats in Washington who don't.