Boehner’s Response Is Work of Political Fiction: Jonathan Alter

July 26 (Bloomberg) -- Speeches by politicians are usually full of spin, biased use of facts and appeals to emotion. President Barack Obama’s address to the nation last night on the debt ceiling was no exception.

House Speaker John Boehner’s response was in a different league. It was chock full of statements that simply aren’t true.

Let’s go to the videotape.

Boehner: “Here’s what we got for that spending binge: a massive health-care bill that most Americans never asked for. A 'stimulus' bill that was more effective in producing material for late-night comedians than it was in producing jobs. And a national debt that has gotten so out of hand it has sparked a crisis without precedent in my lifetime or yours.”

Facts are stubborn things. Whatever one thinks of it, the Obama health-care law wasn’t part of the “spending binge.” The law has yet to significantly contribute to the budget deficit because most of it hasn’t been phased in yet.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus bill created millions of new jobs, which as a factual matter is at least as “effective” as a David Letterman monologue. And anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the 2008-09 economic meltdown knows that it was “sparked” by a crisis in private debt, not “the national debt.” The latter wasn’t a big problem when, say, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. went bust.

Boehner: “The president would not take yes for an answer.”

Saying “Yes”

This line was brazenly lifted from Obama’s July 22 press conference. No harm in that; stealing catchphrases is common in politics. The problem with the line is that it isn’t true. Not a single time during the process did the Republicans ever publicly answer “yes” to something that the president offered. In fact, they walked out of talks twice.

Boehner: “The president has often said we need a balanced approach -- which in Washington means: We spend more, you pay more.”

In truth, Obama’s “balanced approach” has a specific meaning that is factually at odds with what Boehner claimed. It means the government spends less -- almost $3 trillion less over 10 years -- not “more.”

And it only means “you pay more” if by “you” Boehner meant Americans who make more than $250,000 a year, a tiny proportion of his TV audience.

Boehner: “The president is adamant that we cannot make fundamental changes to our entitlement programs.”

Entitlement Cuts

To the consternation of his liberal base, Obama has endorsed raising the age of Medicare eligibility, means-testing benefits and reducing the growth of future Social Security payments -- a total of $650 billion in entitlement cuts. To suggest, as Boehner did, that Obama was subscribing to the old Democratic line that entitlements can’t be changed is untrue.

Boehner: “You see, there is no stalemate in Congress.”

We do see, and our eyes tell us the plain truth: There is in fact a stalemate in Congress.

Boehner: “If the president signs it,” meaning the House bill, “the crisis atmosphere he created will simply disappear.”

Boehner is right that if Obama fully capitulated and signed the House bill, the crisis would end. But it’s simply untrue to suggest that the president “created” the “crisis atmosphere.” Saying so is Orwellian.

Conservatives can legitimately argue that they were right to turn the debt ceiling into a crisis to achieve their ends. But it’s unfair to blame someone else for creating something you created yourself -- and, make no mistake, the Republican Party has turned what should be a standard procedural increase to the debt ceiling into a potential calamity.

Boehner: “I’ve always believed, the bigger the government, the smaller the people.”

This one is an opinion, so it’s not falsifiable. But it’s certainly at odds with American history. Big government can be harmful. But is that “always” so? Did World War II, the space program and the big spending of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, to take only a few examples, make us all “smaller”?

Speak for yourself, Mr. Speaker.

(Jonathan Alter, the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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