Debating the Debate: When Words Substitute for Action

BY Gwen Ifill  July 29, 2011 at 11:50 AM EST


As Washington’s debt ceiling debate approaches its deadline, those of us who watch and cover it anxiously await its drop-dead date. Or its do or die moment. Or, its my-way-or-the-highway climax.

Skyrocketing interest rates. Huge tax hikes. Bottom lines. Gimmicks. Smoke and mirrors. Ticking clocks.

You name it, someone has said it.

The verbiage is clearly out of control. One man who describes himself as “the father of two daughters” (John Boehner) confronts another who describes himself the same way (Barack Obama). Each claws for the high ground as partisans on each side riddle the debate with cliché and poll-tested accusation.

The president says he is simply searching for a “balanced approach.” The Speaker of the House says what the White House really wants is a “blank check.”

If you listen to the rhetoric long enough, you almost don’t hear it anymore. Almost.

Pop culture references seem to be everyone’s favorite. The television series “The West Wing” is a favorite, as White House reporters pressed spokesman Jay Carney for a “Jed Bartlett moment,” where the president presumably will solve the crisis at five minutes before the hour with a dramatic speech or executive order.

I can see the appeal there. I happened to catch the closing scenes of “The American President” – the Michael Douglas/Annette Bening vehicle that is always playing on TV somewhere – last weekend.

The scene where the president bursts into the White House briefing room, kicks the press secretary off the podium, and declares his love for his girlfriend while simultaneously reviving an anti-crime bill? It never gets old.

House Republicans got in on the fiction-as-reality act by playing a clip from the Ben Affleck gangster movie “The Town” at a closed-door caucus meeting this week. It’s unclear whether this was designed to urge lawmakers to become thugs, but it inspired Carney to respond.

The debt debate, he said, presents a “Sophie’s Choice” – who to pay; who not to pay? This comparison demonstrated the limits of Hollywood association. The Sophie character, after all, was forced to choose which of her children to send to the gas chamber.

Sen. John McCain chose to read from the words of the Wall Street Journal editorial page which assailed the House Republican strategy using a “The Lord of the Rings” analogy in his remarks on the floor of the Senate.

“The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue and the public will turn en masse against Barack Obama,” said a man who knows a thing or two about going up against President Obama. “Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment, reform entitlements, and the Tea Party Hobbits could return to Middle-Earth, having defeated Mordor.”

So this was a good week for students of one-upsmanship. Among my personal favorites:

The health care metaphor: “It’s just as if we are in a code with a patient and we are trying to save that patient,” — Freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican who, it turns out, is also a registered nurse.

The alliteration metaphor: “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.” — President Obama, who liked this one so much he said it in two different speeches.

The fairy tale metaphor: “It is only a matter of days before the August 2nd deadline. And while at midnight on August 2nd we don’t all turn into pumpkins, we do as a country lose our borrowing authority for the first time in our history.” — White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

And when in doubt, go to the sports metaphor: “‘Cut, Cap and Balance,’ it was a Hail Mary touchdown pass. Let’s go and take what we can get in this, get the five yards, get the first down and fight the next battles.” — Rep. Blake Farenthold R-Tex.

But metaphors are way more amusing when, in the end, no one is heading toward a cliff. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.