Politics on the Playground

A prominent member of the House of Representatives has offered a budget proposal, and the President of the United States has publicly called it a “stink burger.”
There’s much to be said about the budget proposed by Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, as well as the alternative put forth a few weeks back by President Barack Obama, but we’ll happily leave it all unsaid. Neither proposal has any chance of becoming law, so we find it far more interesting and worrisome that our political discourse has devolved to the point of “stink burger.”
Obama was once widely lauded as the greatest orator since Demosthenes, but surely even his most awe-struck admirers will admit that “stink burger” is not quite eloquent enough to justify that reputation. There were kids on the playground at Kistler Elementary School who could come up with more creative insults, and by the time they had graduated to Brooks Junior High and foul language they didn’t sound nearly so juvenile. We have no idea how taunting is done on the playgrounds of Honolulu’s ritzier private schools or at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, but we had hoped for something a little more high-brow. We certainly expect more of a President of the United States, as we can fondly recall a time when even a relatively low-brow Vice President could come up with something as alliterative and snappy as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
The “stink burger” slur reportedly went over well with Obama’s audience at the University of Michigan. This does not speak well for the state of higher education, where a higher-toned sort of malicious slander once prevailed, but perhaps they were just grateful to be spared all the boring details of the budget debate. Obama also called Ryan’s budget proposal a “meanwich,” which seems to imply that he finds it parsimonious, which is almost an actual argument, and even a modern-day college student can understand why the president preferred to avoid any specifics.
Ryan’s allegedly radical right-wing proposal is rather tepid stuff, after all, at least by the standards of we actual right-wing radicals. The plan would take ten years to reach a balanced budget, must less begin to eat into $17 trillion of debt, and is mean only the sense that your parents were mean when they wouldn’t give you a pony. You’d probably get that long-awaited pony if the Obama budget proposal were passed, but it is based on the equally fanciful notion that a nation can live happily ever after on trillions of dollars of indefinitely continued debt. That’s a hard argument to make, even to a student full of empty-headed college students, and is best expressed in terms of “stink burger.”

— Bud Norman

Where the Buck Stops

As the tragedy that occurred in Libya on Sept. 11 becomes an ever greater embarrassment for the Obama administration, the administration’s excuses become ever more desperate.

The latest official line was trotted out in last week’s vice presidential debate when Joe Biden, in between his constant snorts, sighs, and rude interruptions, attempted to deflect the blame onto the State Department for failing to inform the president of repeated requests from the ambassador for more security and onto the House Republicans for cutting for the State Department’s security budget. Obama’s remaining supporters should hope that he comes up with something better for tonight’s debate, because neither argument is convincing.

Even as Biden was pleading Republican-imposed poverty as the reason for the fiasco, we were wondering if the money allocated for security was insufficient or merely misspent according to naïve notions about the Middle East. There were already reports that the Marines were denied ammunition to guard the Egyptian embassy, which had been attacked and trashed by an Islamist mob the same day as the murderous assault in Libya, and it seemed unlikely that the budget was so niggardly that it couldn’t afford a few bullets. Since then the story has proved even more improbable, as we’ve learned that the State Department’s security budget is twice what it was a decade ago, and that there was an extra $2 billion sitting around in the agency coffers earmarked for embassy security. In another example of the administration’s questionable priorities, we’ve also learned that there was enough money in the State Department’s budget to purchase a $108,000 charging station for one embassy’s newly purchased Chevy Volt.

Nor are we impressed with Biden’s claim that the fault lies not with the president but rather with the woman that he appointed to oversee the State Department. Although Hillary Clinton has dutifully accepted responsibility for the failure to provide the necessary security, surely Obama deserves some blame for putting her in charge. Nor does Clinton’s soldierly mea culpa change the fact that she and Obama, as well as several other administration officials, continued to peddle the story that a virtually unknown low-budget video had caused the tragedy, a bald-faced lie that resulted in the imprisonment of a filmmaker and yet another blow to the invaluable tradition of free speech.

Perhaps Obama will be so bold as the reiterate that argument advanced by campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, who has claimed that the death of an American ambassador and three of his brave countrymen in a terror attack by a group supposedly vanquished by the administration would be of no interest to anyone if not for the nitpicking of Mitt Romney. There might be something to that, but if so the country has bigger problems any presidential candidate can possibly remedy.

— Bud Norman

Dueling Budgets

That Rep. Paul Ryan sure is an awful, horrible, low-down, mean person, at least to hear President Barack Obama tell it.

Speaking before an adoring audience of editors and reporters at an Associated Press luncheon on Tuesday, Obama said that the Wisconsin congressman’s recently proposed budget plan was “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” He further stated that the Ryan plan is “so far to the right that it makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.”

The latter charge was presumably meant as a disparagement, although it is unclear which of the two programs is being disparaged. The New Deal failed to lower the unemployment rate below 14.6 percent until World War II, and burdened future generations with such fiscal calamities as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Social Security, while the Contract with America included a welfare reform bill that is widely regarded as one of the more successful laws of the past generation, as well as tax cuts for small businesses such as the president now claims to champion. It also had some rather unexceptional reforms that were never passed into law, such as term limits and an independent audit of Congress, and some ideas that weren’t passed, such as a balanced budget amendment, that might have saved us from a number of current problems. Few Americans will remember anything that was included in the Contract with America way back in 1994, much less be able to name anything extremely right-wing in it, but Obama seems hopeful that many will vaguely recall the bad press it got from his adoring audience of editors and reporters.

The “thinly veiled social Darwinism” line is a more unambiguous insult. While Darwinism as a biological theory is so fashionable that to question any aspect of it marks one as a hopeless rube, Darwinism as a social theory is universally despised. Obama elaborated on the charge by claiming that the Ryan budget would “end Medicare as we know it,” deny mothers and children healthy food, dirty the water and air, and generally impose widespread misery on the populace. Hearing Obama describe the plan, one can imagine Ryan twirling his moustache and cackling a maniacal laugh as he ties the poor mothers and children to the train tracks, his murderous scheme thwarted only because the Amtrak subsidies have been slashed and no train is coming.

The Medicare trustees concede that the program as we know it will end with insolvency in 2024 anyway, so Ryan’s plan to replace it with a voucher system doesn’t seem very socially Darwinian, but the other charges do sound quite dreadful. Looking at the actual Ryan proposal, however, reveals that it would actually increase government spending, doesn’t actually balance the ledgers for decades, and that by 2022 the government’s budget as a share of gross domestic product would actually be higher than in the last two years of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Those years were the good old days, according to Democratic legend, and even Clinton’s most bitters foes don’t recall them as an era of starving mothers and children, dirty air and water, widespread misery, and survival of the fittest.

Ryan’s plan is undeniably stingy when compared with Obama’s budget proposal, however. The Obama plan is to rack up another $6.4 trillion in debt between 2013 and 2022, or nearly $11 trillion under the more realistic “alternative fiscal scenario,” and hope that it all works out in the end. Just for yucks the House actually voted on the proposal, and it failed by a rather lopsided vote of 0-414. When even Nancy Pelosi can’t bring herself to vote for such a budget, it might be considered, well, so extreme that it makes the New Deal look like the Contract with America.

— Bud Norman