John Boehner Needs a Dictionary

All of these bipartisan discussions are encouraging, and Republicans hope they will lead to real solutions that help American families. But presidential leadership is really what’s needed. By shifting the focus from charm to courage, and eventually action, we can guarantee our children a future where everyone has the opportunity to find work and pursue their piece of the American dream. That would be the grandest bargain of all.
Obama’s outreach is nice, but where’s the leadership?, John Boehner, Op-ed, Washington Post, today

I have what I think is a better question, this one for the speaker: Where’s a dictionary?

One of the most pernicious aspects of these phony, sequential fiscal crises is, in my opinion, the Republicans’ tactic of selecting single words or short phrases that have an appealing meaning and using them to mean something else entirely–often something the opposite of what the word or phrase actually means.  It’s so clearly concerted, political-consultant-suggested, Madison Avenue-type sales gimmickry; every few days there’s a new messaging word or short phrase, redefined or otherwise-misleadingly used, and then repeated, repeated, repeated … repeated.   

Enter “leadership.”  And now, “courage.”  As in: the president should demonstrate these qualities by delegating to the Tea Party the fiscal policy of the United States, because the Tea Party is now the Republican Party and it wants to disassemble the federal government and will settle for nothing less.* 

So I suggest that Obama offer Boehner a dictionary and ask him to point to where it defines leadership as abdication, and courage as cowering.  Whether you’re the president or, say, the Speaker of the House.  

Maybe more to the point, where in the dictionary definition of either leadership or courage does it define those words as including doing absolutely whatever is necessary to keep your position as House speaker, regardless of the consequences to the country you took an oath of office to serve?  Neither the Merriam-Webster’s nor the Oxford English limits those terms to references to the president of the United States.  The definitions do look broad enough to include the speaker.  And even the Senate minority leader.  Even ones who are petrified (literally, it appears from the look on his face these days) of being “primaried” by a Tea Party candidate.  

The Orwellian redefinition of words to mean the opposite of, or at least something entirely different than, their actual meaning is a standard propaganda and subterfuge tool of dictatorships. Mao Tse-tung was infamous for this.  And so, of course, was Hitler.  (The inscription in German, “Work will make you free,” remains above the front gate of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, a permanent reminder of the deeply sinister nature of extreme semantics games employed in the service of political propaganda.)

That so much of the proud-centrist punditry and fair-and-balanced mainstream media have assisted Boehner & Friends in their sophistry in the last month is inexcusable, if no longer surprising.  If they agree with Boehner that the Ryan budget will guarantee our children a future where everyone has the opportunity to find work and pursue their piece of the American dream, then they should explain why.  If they believe instead that the Ryan budget will guarantee our children a future in which Atlas really has shrugged and everyone lives inside The Fountainhead (or maybe in the Pakistan of North America), then they should say that, and explain why. At least the news analysis writers and the centrist pundits should.

They won’t.  But maybe a few of them will point out that, with due respect to Mr. Boehner, the grandest bargain of all would be a free Webster’s Collegiate delivered to the Speaker’s office on Capitol Hill.

As for Obama, he got lucky in the last two days. The Ryan budget will disabuse a clear majority of the next poll responders that the GOP should be trusted with determining what cuts to make to the federal budget, and when. At least if the public actually learns the specifics. (That, of course, would have been true for the last few years, had Obama deigned to apprise the public of the specifics.) And the live “tweets” from the Republican House-member attendees during their meeting with him yesterday were so vile that Obama really needs now only to recite a few of them in order to fully open the public’s eyes, if and when he decides to speak to the public about the actual situation.  

And, who knows? Maybe he will, now that he’s checked off the extend-an-olive-branch box on the mainstream press’s list of what Leaders (if not necessarily Courageous ones) do, and therefore may even have their permission to do so.

*See Greg Sargent’s terrific Morning Plum column in today’s Washington Post.