Mad As Hell

David Obey's Debt Frustration

The retired liberal lion slams the GOP’s “dangerous game of political chicken” and warns Tea Party Republicans to grow up and grasp the gravity of the debt crisis. By McKay Coppins.

07.22.11 2:35 AM ET

Two years ago, David Obey was one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington and among the fiercest liberals in Congress, standing defiantly at the center of every budget battle as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But today, as the country creeps closer to default in the midst of escalating partisan warfare, the former Wisconsin congressman is forced to watch from the sidelines—and he’s more than a little pissed off.

“You’d think this was a young Republicans’ convention of 20-year-olds who are wet behind the ears and haven’t yet learned how the world works,” Obey tells The Daily Beast, describing the dynamics of the debt negotiations. “I think it’s an astounding obfuscation of responsibility.”

Obey’s comments come at a pivotal point in the debt debate that has brought Washington to near-gridlock in recent weeks. With the deadline to raise the nation’s debt ceiling only 12 days away, congressional leaders are frantically trying to cobble together a plan that would save the U.S. from defaulting on its debts and prevent a potentially catastrophic blow to the world economy. Republicans are insisting on deep cuts to public spending before they’re willing to raise the debt ceiling, and Wall Street is reportedly readying “doomsday plans” in case Congress fails to act.

A glimmer of hope was offered earlier this week when a bipartisan group of senators known as “the Gang of Six” emerged with a deficit reduction proposal that included both spending cuts and tax increases. And news broke Thursday that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner might be close to a deal of their own. But Obey, who knows a thing or two about corralling congressmen, isn’t optimistic about the plans’ prospects.

Procedurally, he says, the White House and congressional leaders have made a serious mistake by hashing out the details of their would-be compromises without keeping other players, especially those in the relevant committees (such as the one he chaired), in the loop. “If only a few people have been privy to the specifics of the deal, then it’s tough to sell it to (the rest of Congress),” Obey says, adding that legislative writers need time to work out the language of whatever deal is reached—not an easy task given the current timeline.

Even if legislation is written in time, and the key players agree to it, Obey has little faith that the seemingly untamable Tea Party Republicans who stormed the House of Representatives last year will realize the gravity of the situation. (Many of them have pledged that they will vote against any deal that includes tax increases, and the Gang of Six plan allows the Bush tax cuts to expire as a means of raising revenue.) Obey blames the current state of affairs on a dangerous form of Tea Party groupthink.

“The worst thing that can happen to you in this town is if you believe your own bull gravy,” he says. “What happens with these Tea Party people is you get 15 of them in a room, they talk to each other for an hour, and they leave thinking they’ve conducted a public opinion poll.”

He says Tea Party Republicans are playing a dangerous game of political chicken with the White House in these debt negotiations, raising political capital along the way and betting President Obama will blink first because “he’s more responsible than they are.” His fear is that ultimately the only plan that will be able to pass in the House is one that lacks tax hikes for the rich and cuts benefits for the poor and working class.

“In other words, the Republicans are betting on Obama’s essential responsibility in order to drive the country to irresponsible bumper sticker slogans,” says Obey, adding, “This is a time for adults. It’s not a time to repeat every damn slogan your pollster has told you to.”

He has no qualms about calling out specific politicians for perceived demagoguery, laying into Republican Senator (and fellow Wisconsinite) Ron Johnson for a testy appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” earlier this week. “I mean, this is the greatest country in the world, and you have this clownish performance by Senator Johnson,” he says. “Good God almighty, he looked like a college cheerleader at a pep rally rather than a thoughtful senator trying to work through a very serious problem.”

Of course, Obey’s disdain for the Tea Party goes deeper than ideology. His own 40-year congressional career was ended in 2010 when he announced an early retirement, facing stiff competition from an insurgent Republican campaign. The candidate who replaced him? Sean Duffy, of MTV’s Real World stardom, who promised Wisconsin voters that he would “take an ax to Washington.” (Duffy has said he comes from a long line of lumberjacks.)

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As Obey sees it, Duffy and his cohorts are operating in a fiscal fantasyland, where massive federal deficits can be solved and economic prosperity restored simply by slashing trillions of dollars in public spending. “Anybody with a brain and a pencil understands that you have to have long-term debt reduction,” Obey says. “But if you have extreme, immediate slashing of government and the economy you will simply drive the country toward... another recession.”

Obey pays lip service to the holy grail of congressional compromise—“the key to everything in life is balance; politics ain’t no exception”—but the truth is, if he were still in office today, his voice most likely would be a polarizing one. An ardent progressive and notorious curmudgeon, Obey earned a reputation in the House of Representatives for head-to-head battles with opponents both outside his party and within. In one 2009 confrontation, he reportedly got into a shouting match with Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters on the House floor over an earmark she had requested. After they loudly accused each other of being “out of line,” Waters was escorted into a cloakroom and could be heard telling her colleagues, “he touched me,” according to a report in The Hill. (At the time, Obey’s spokesman blamed Waters for the incident.)

Since retiring last year, Obey has made occasional forays into statewide debates in Wisconsin, prompting some speculation that he may seek the governorship there. But if he has made any career decisions while watching his debt debate unfold, they likely won’t lead him back to Congress.

Harry Reid is a saint,” he says of the Senate majority leader and his efforts to broker a deal despite restrictive Senate rules and combative Republicans. “If I were Harry Reid I’d go mad… (he) has to have the patience of Job squared to get anything responsible done.”