Dana Milbank
Opinion writer July 27, 2011

The time has come in the debt-limit fight for all Americans to declare their loyalties: Are you with the bank robbers, or are you with the dirty old men?

This unpalatable choice is as good a way as any to frame the debate in these last days before the default deadline.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

On one side are House Republican leaders who, facing a rebellion of Tea Party conservatives, appealed for party unity by screening for members a clip of the 2010 film “The Town,” in which Ben Affleck’s bank-robber character tells the Jeremy Renner character: “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we’re gonna hurt some people.” Renner replies: “Whose car we takin’?” The clip ended before the shooting and beatings that followed.

On the other side are House Democratic leaders, who had to decide how to handle Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward a teenage girl (he claims it was consensual). Wu, who previously attracted attention by sending staff members photos of himself in a tiger costume,had no choice but to resign. But leaders accepted his plan to stay on the job for the debt standoff, thereby giving them one more vote against Speaker John Boehner’s debt plan.

It’s hard to decide which wins the craven crown: Exhorting colleagues by playing for them a call to criminal violence? Or trying to thwart the opposition by tolerating a 56-year-old colleague accused of forcing himself on a friend’s daughter?

Both are evidence of how desperate the warring parties are for any fleeting advantage in the fight. Someday, Democrats may rue wooing Wu to stay with them for the budget votes, and Republicans may do penance for embracing Hollywood violence. But this is not that day.

In the Democrats’ case, Wu’s grace period was a matter of arithmetic. Without him, Boehner would need 216 votes to pass his budget-cutting plan; with him, Boehner needs 217. And so Wu released a statement that he would “resign effective upon the resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis.”

That’s a delay Democrats are apparently comfortable with, even though this was not the first time this tiger has prowled: He was disciplined in college after a woman accused him of trying to force her to have sex, the Oregonian newspaper reported several years ago.

At a news conference Wednesday, I asked Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairman, whether she thought Wu should go sooner — and she demurred. “I think he made the right decision to resign,” she said.

The Republicans’ problem is more complicated. Though he has made few concessions, Boehner is facing a chorus of criticism from Tea Party activists who think he has not been belligerent enough. At a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday, the co-founders of the influential Tea Party Patriots network said a poll of their supporters found 82 percent of them dissatisfied with House leadership and 74 percent inclined to see Boehner replaced.

One of the co-founders, Mark Meckler, called Boehner’s proposed budget cuts “phantom” and “fake.” Later in the day, the leader of a smaller group called Tea Party Nation called for Boehner to be ousted. And staffers for conservative lawmakers rallied interest groups to fight against Boehner’s plan.

To resist such pressure, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) thought the proper tone would be Affleck’s crime thriller, packed with sex, drugs, violence and profanity, and described by USA Today as having “murky morality.”

The selection evidently had the desired effect. After the clip, in which the Renner character asks whose car they’ll drive, Rep. Allen West (Fla.), a Tea Party favorite, announced to his colleagues: “I’m ready to drive the car!”

Over the next 24 hours, conservatives’ resistance to Boehner’s plan ebbed, and Wednesday morning, Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.), one of the few remaining holdouts, emerged from a caucus meeting feeling the pain McCarthy promised. “I’m a beat-up ‘no,’ ” he reported.

Democrats pretended to be offended by the film selection. “They could have used ‘Hoosiers,’ ‘Rudy’ or ‘Band of Brothers,’ ” protested Wasserman Schultz (the person would-be getaway car driver West called “vile” and “not a lady”). “Now is not the time to be thinking about putting the political hurt to the other party or the president.”

But Republicans have a defense. That effort to “hurt people” in “The Town” was planned as revenge on men who had hassled a young woman.

David Wu might want to take that as a warning.