What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate. Sort Of.

Like any number of liberals, I have from time to time complained about the difficulty of having substantive arguments about politics when your opponents refuse to acknowledge plain facts about the world. It's hard to have a discussion about what to do about climate change, for instance, if the other person refuses to believe that climate change is occurring. It's hard to discuss how to handle market failures in health insurance when the other person holds that markets are always perfect and government health insurance is always more expensive. As frustrating as those kinds of impasses are, at least you're talking about complex systems that require at least some investment of time to understand.

But there's a rather incredible dance going on right now in the dispute over the budget that takes every stereotype liberals have about know-nothing Republicans and turns it up to 11. To sum it up, Democrats are being forced to negotiate with a group of people who are either so dumb they can't figure out what the White House's negotiating position is (unlikely) or so incredibly irresponsible that they don't care enough to find out, when doing so would take them about 30 seconds (probable). It's hard to find words to describe this kind of behavior. The Republican position is that this negotiation is of vital importance to the future of the country, indeed, so important that they may be willing to shut the government down and let the full faith and credit of the United States be destroyed if they don't get what they want; but they also can't be bothered to understand what it is the other side wants. And these people hold our nation's fate in their hands.

A brief explanation: President Obama is proposing a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to bring down the deficit. Republicans want only spending cuts. But Republicans are also insisting that President Obama has not, in fact, proposed any spending cuts, and wants only tax increases. Now, you may imagine that as a tactic of negotiation or public persuasion, politicians sometimes publicly take a position slightly more extreme than the one they sincerely hold, or temporarily pretend that something doesn't exist when it does. And you'd be right. But in this case, many Republicans—even those actually involved in budget negotiations—seem to be genuinely unaware of the administration's position. It's simply mind-boggling.

And it isn't like we're talking about some obscure provision buried in a 1,000-page bill. Head on over to whitehouse.gov, and right up top there's a button reading "See the Plan." And it takes you to Obama's proposal, which includes—now pay attention here—$930 billion in spending cuts! It may not be all that detailed, and maybe you disagree about where the cuts should come from or how big they should be, but no one could look at it and say the President hasn't proposed cutting spending. Yet Republicans have been saying, and even often shouting, that the President hasn't proposed any spending cuts. In this incredible segment on The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly flies into an apoplectic rage when guest Alan Colmes insists that Obama has in fact proposed cutting spending. He challenges Colmes to name a program Obama has suggested cutting, and when Colmes answers Medicare and Medicaid, O'Reilly screams (yes, screams), "That's not a specific program!"

Now even Bill O'Reilly doesn't want to look like an outright fool, though he may be less concerned about it than most of us. And you'd think that if he was going to do a segment on the budget debate, he'd at least make some effort to understand that debate. But I guess not. What's more incredible is that the legislators who are doing the actual negotiating are just as ignorant. As Ezra Klein tells us, Obama's dinner with Senate Republicans last night was partly about massaging their considerable egos, and partly because they are so clueless that they didn't realize the President had proposed cuts until they heard it from him personally. NBC reported  that "one senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. [GOP Senate] Leadership hadn't shared that list with them before." Really. And it's happening on the House side too; in that post, Klein relates a conversation with a high-ranking House Republican who said that if the President were to support the use of chained CPI to cut Social Security benefits, that would be a serious proposal; informed that the President has in fact said again and again that he supports the use of chained CPI, the Republican laughed and said, "I'd love to see it."

You can argue that Obama hasn't done enough personal, one-to-one outreach to the other side. But how on earth can we run a government when members of Congress can't be bothered to learn even the most basic facts about the things they're deciding on? And we're not talking about just a bunch of backbench wingnuts here, this is senators and House leaders, the people whose cooperation we'll need if we're going to avert catastrophe. It's just unbelievable.

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