Republicans Disrespect Obama on Debt Ceiling

Budget, debt, and entitlement debates parallel Civil War battles, with Cantor and Ryan taking the Confederate side.

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So yesterday a gaggle of House Republican leaders went to see President Obama in the White House, where he lives as the elected leader of our American democracy, but they did not pay their respects. Nor did they listen to sweet reason on the economy's quiet desperation.

Right now, House Republicans are leading a Pickett's Charge—the last act of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg by General Robert E. Lee's men in Confederate gray uniform. Their rebellious charge against Obama is also against the republic, meaning us, especially the less fortunate and the 9 percent unemployed. Even the well-off, with their George W. Bush tax cuts extended, are watching their dimes. Doomed though it was, the Confederate brigade soldiers shed a lot of blood on both sides in an ultimately losing battle and Civil War. The 1863 denouement still goes down in some histories and novels as grand and noble, but not in my book. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress raise the debt ceiling?]

So it makes me mad—and sad—to see American history repeat itself almost as a predestined drama that would make Sophocles weep.

After the meeting, the supremely confident Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, told The New York Times: "The president talked about a need for us to continue to quote-unquote invest from Washington’s standpoint, and for a lot of us that’s code for more Washington spending, something that we can’t afford right now.” Thanks so much for sharing that—and who sent you? One congressional district of Virginia, which includes Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Funny how that is.

Is it just me, or do you share the sense that the southerner is talking down to Barack Obama as if he were a schoolboy in a shop—saying, no, that's not something we can afford right now. I don't like his tone, and I like his substance even less. More on that in a minute.

Then there's his lookalike shipmate, Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the so-called "Ryan plan," which hacks Medicare to death. The doer, a Wisconsinite with no advanced degree in economics or anything else, admits his favorite author is the very scary Ayn Rand. Nobel Prize laureates say his plan to abolish Medicare wreaks havoc on the middle class, but that doesn't faze Ryan. The cold, pitiless worldview in Rand's books finds perfect legislative expression in Ryan's document, which received a nice ride in the media for abolishing "entitlements." That's a word said with a snarl these days—but don't be so quick to dismiss them. One might be your own. [Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?]

Ryan is peddling his plan mostly by accusing critics of "demagoguing" the issue—not a very classy or civil way to engage opponents or the electorate. These days, there's no great honor to fighting fair. Constituents in Ryan's own home district in Wisconsin have shouted him down. How sweet it would be to see this political operative lose at the end of this long campaign.

Cantor and Ryan are the two House Republicans calling the plays in terms of actual policy, politics, and media spin. The battle-tested Speaker John Boehner takes his cues from these younger lieutenants out on the field and in face-to-face councils with the enemy, when they take the fight to where he lives. That's where they assert the federal government has no role to play in reviving the economy, especially hiring, something that is breathtakingly wrong. Ryan should have read less Rand gospel and more John Maynard Keynes, the founder of the brilliant general theory of macroeconomics. I suggest he look it up. The federal government is the only engine to stimulate general employment—yes, the answer even for the "small businesses" House Republicans claim to treasure at the expense of everybody else. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP.]

At least they're in the fight—I'll give them that. Senate Democrats, not so much. They are the other majority on Capitol Hill, with broader popular support from statewide elections, but you wouldn't know it from walking the silent marble halls. They are not making a convincing case to the American people on much of anything, in domestic or foreign policy. Drawing on another Civil War parallel, they are acting timid, like the Union's Army of the Potomac in the opening months of the Civil War. Under Gen. George McClellan, the army did more drilling than fighting until President Lincoln got exasperated enough to refer to it as "General McClellan's bodyguard."

Like Lincoln, Obama urgently needs more help from his side, his army, his supporters. Send in the allies willing to fight in the modern-day Devil's Den, Little Round Top, and Peach Orchard in Gettysburg. Because if they fight, the Democrats will win the decisive battle of this civil war.

  • Vote now: Should Paul Ryan's budget plan become law?
  • Check out political cartoons about the budget and deficit.
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