Ask top Democrats, and they’ll say Republicans are acting like terrorists, arsonists and people with bombs strapped to their chests. Ask some Republicans about President Barack Obama’s health care law, and they’ll draw comparisons to the Nazis or the return of runaway slaves and declare that the law will cause the untimely death of vulnerable Americans.
Even for a town accustomed to hyperbole, the spat over spending, borrowing and health-care reform has attracted more than its share of over-the-top rhetoric.
While most Americans may tune it out, it’s a good bet the violence-tinged accusations won’t make it any easier for the two sides to come together on critical issues of spending and borrowing.
Take Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, who warned on the House floor earlier this year what can happen if Republicans don’t overturn “Obamacare,” the president’s health care law.
“Let’s repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens,” Bachmann said.
Republican opponents of the law claim it will drive up costs, making it harder for Americans to access lifesaving health care. Obama and other Democrats disagree.
Either way, there’s nothing in the law that would require the American government to kill its citizens.
“The purpose is to get attention, to bring my issue to the forefront and position it in the mind of the public,” said Craig Smith, a presidential speechwriter in the administrations of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. “What you risk down the road, when the fire has gone out, is people looking back and saying, ‘That guy was a little bit crazy. I’m sorry I fell for it.'”
GOP efforts to strip funding for the law have been at the heart of disagreements over how to fund the government before a threatened shutdown kicks in Tuesday. Lawmakers are also trading fiery barbs over their opponent’s behavior as Congress and Obama wrestle over increasing the debt ceiling to avert a first-ever default.
The White House, meanwhile, has accused Republicans of holding the budget hostage, demanding ransoms and threatening to burn down the house unless they get what they want.
Former Vice President Al Gore accused Republicans Friday of “political terrorism.” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California has called her GOP colleagues “legislative arsonists” in a fundraising email and TV interviews. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., likened them to “anarchists” and “fanatics.”
When a gunman in Tucson unloaded on Arizonans in 2011, killing six and critically wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, lawmakers from both parties called for a reset in confrontational politics. A nation in shock sought to put a pause on overheated belligerence, realizing that there may be dangers inherent in using battle-themed language to describe partisan disagreements in a peaceful democracy.
Two years later, that restraint has evaporated.
“What we’re not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest,” Obama’s senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, told CNN this week.
Jon Favreau, who was Obama’s chief speechwriter the last time the U.S. faced such brinksmanship over the debt ceiling, in 2011, said he remembers hearing then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner explain to White House aides just what would happen if the U.S. defaulted — a scenario Favreau described as “really, really scary.”
“On most issues, I’m not a fan of really cranking up the rhetoric,” Favreau said. “But on the debt ceiling, because so few people know what the consequences of default really are, sometimes you really need to draw some analogies and really spell it out for people.”
Republicans see another cause for alarm as they eye their last-best chance to undo Obamacare before Americans start buying insurance through new exchanges that open next week. But is the law, which also provides protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions and expands coverage options for young adults, really that bad?
“Obamacare is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., has said, calling it the biggest existential threat to the economy since the Great Depression.
New Hampshire state Rep. Bill O’Brien has called it as destructive to personal liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced runaway slaves to be returned to their masters.
A conservative group is airing television ads insinuating that women who purchase insurance through the exchanges will be violated by a creepy Uncle Sam using metal gynecological instruments.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in his 21-hour speech against the law, earned the rebuke of some of his GOP colleagues when he invoked Nazi Germany in answering critics who said he was unlikely to succeed.
“We saw in Britain,” Cruz said, “Neville Chamberlain, who told the British people, ‘Accept the Nazis. Yes, they’ll dominate the continent of Europe but that’s not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We can’t possibly stand against them.'”
In the near term, each side’s heated attempts to castigate its opponents are geared toward building public support for their favored way forward.
But there’s another critical factor behind all the bombast: Both sides are fervently working to make sure that, in the end, if the government shuts down or the U.S. can’t pay its debts, it’s the other guy who will get the blame.
At the moment, Democrats have the advantage on that front, said Peter Brown of the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. But the 2014 midterm elections are a long time away.
“What is unknown is how this spins out and will affect public opinion 13 months from now,” Brown said. “It’s hard to tell.”
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