The Depressing Debt Soap Opera

Paul Ryan offers unpopular cuts. Eric Cantor threatens to put the government in default. And the Democrats demagogue. Matt Latimer on why D.C.’s fiscal debate has become a mind-numbing re-run.

04.21.11 10:35 PM ET

I am supposed to be opining on Round 600 of the budget follies on Capitol Hill, but first some news that really matters. Recently ABC announced the cancellation of its iconic, long-running soap opera, One Life to Live, in favor of (yet) another reality-TV show about people eating things, called The Chew. This comes on the heels of another life-draining gabfest, The Talk. Up next: The Taste, The Bite, and The Phlegm.

Which brings us despairingly to Washington's long-running soap opera—The Cut—now entering its umpteenth season and with no merciful cancellation in sight. You know the plot, of course: Every few years, good-government types and angry voters bemoan our crippling federal deficit. They decry the unsustainable spending on entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid, seeking someone, anyone, to address the crisis. And every few years on cue a Republican takes the bait by proposing an actual plan to slow the growth of these programs and offer seniors more choices, only to be smacked around by Democrats, the media, the same good-government types, and yes, fickle voters, as a modern-day Charybdis. Making amends, chastened GOP leaders respond with a new round of profligate spending until good-government types and frustrated-anew voters again demand action by someone -- anyone -- on the deficit and entitlement programs. Maybe we should go back to talking about The Chew.

Give House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan this much credit. He may be a new cast member, but he saw from the start how the plot would work out. When he proposed the latest plan by conservatives to curb—but not actually cut—spending on Medicare and Medicaid, he admitted that his program handed the Democrats “ a political weapon.” Apparently Ryan hoped the Democrats, aware of the public outcry over Washington’s wastrel spending, would be more responsible this time. He hoped for even more from the American people, who might finally appreciate the fiscal mess before them and applaud the Republicans for at least offering credible specifics for discussion. Wrong on both counts.

Until the American people start rewarding those willing to make tough choices, and punishing those who don't, the only thing that is going to change in Washington is the number of zeros added to the federal debt.

President Obama—whom we are constantly assured really, truly wants to work with the GOP on spending reductions—offered a deficit-cutting plan of his own. It was typical Washington: few specifics, little pain to his own supporters, and no meaningful reform to entitlement programs, which Obama himself acknowledged amounted to nearly two-thirds of the entire federal budget. In the same breath, the oh-so-desperate-for-bipartisan-cooperation Obama denounced the Republicans for putting forward their own proposal, claiming the GOP believes in an America that would violate “the promise we've made to care for our seniors,” apparently leave the poor and vulnerable to the mercy of roving street gangs, and applaud with glee while roads and bridges crumble beneath their feet.  Did I mention how eagerly the president wants to end the “tired” politics of the past – you know, like frightening seniors and the poor for political purposes?

If the Ryan plan had any hope, the death knell most assuredly was struck this week by a new Washington Post poll—which seemed to be published in everything but the Yellow Pages—finding that 78 percent of Americans opposed the “cuts” in Medicare and 69 percent were against “cuts” in Medicaid that the Republicans supposedly are proposing (except they aren't.)

Nothing is more sacrosanct in Washington than a poll, of course, and its results have been greeted with great fanfare by GOP critics (Republicans were “out of touch,” said one pundit; “rejected by America” laughed another). The Huffington Post gleefully mused about Mr. Ryan being a Democratic plant.

I don’t know how clued in the American people are to all of this; they long ago became bored with this daytime melodrama, which partly explains the appeal of more entertaining politicos, like Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Donald Trump. Even though a half-dozen Republican presidential candidates have been peddling their wares all over the country for nearly a year, just the other day a solid majority of Americans could not name a single one. Thus the latest polls on budget-cutting probably mean little. Most polled would prefer that Medicare stay the way it is. So would everybody, if we could afford it. A solid majority would prefer not to cut the budget of the Pentagon either (a point upon which liberal outlets predictably chose not to dwell.) Americans don’t want higher taxes, either, except “on the rich” (which to those polled means, “not on me"). In short, Americans busy with other matters, like keeping their own jobs, don't want to make Washington's hard choices for them. What a shock. Maybe they believe that is what we have elected officials for.

Republicans say they aren't going to buckle on making tough budgetary choices. (They said that last time too.) And they do seem to be making a decent show of it— Eric Cantor, a House Republican leader, has even floated the possibility of voting against raising the debt ceiling, putting America in default. No one believes this will happen, of course. The Republicans also are crafting a communications strategy to buttress their argument that they are the only party serious about debt. No one thinks that's going to work, either.

The country arrived at this fiscal reckoning because neither political party had the guts to exercise financial discipline. But our political leaders do not deserve all of the blame. Until the American people start rewarding those willing to make tough choices, and punishing those who don't, the only thing that is going to change in Washington is the number of zeros added to the federal debt. Maybe that is something the voters need to chew on.

Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.