April 20, 2011

Remember that great scene in the 1980 film classic, “The Shining,” when the wife comes upon the typewriter of the Jack Nicholson character, who’s supposed to have been working night and day for months on his novel? To her horror, she finds thousands of pages on which Jack has typed, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” formatted in countless, crazy ways. Suddenly his suspected madness becomes all too frighteningly real.

Well, debt limit mania has driven me to a similar frenzied state. If my wife came across my manuscript it would read, “The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit. The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit.”

I thought about making this week’s column that one sentence printed over and over 30 times. It would have been the opinion page equivalent of a Dada-esque protest against the inanity of the debate — and a cry for every news outlet to focus on this simple, clarifying fact.

(Close your eyes for a moment and picture such a column — kinda fun, don’t you think? And imagine the trend it might have sparked among pundits who found they could do their jobs with more zen-like elegance than ever before. Just distill and hammer home the single thought readers need that week to alter their worldview — more powerful than a haiku; less evanescent than a tweet.)

But there’s more to say. For the life of me I don’t understand why the press doesn’t shove this fact in front of every Republican who says the debt limit cannot be raised unless serious new spending cuts are put in place. The supposedly “courageous,” “visionary” Paul Ryan plan — which already contains everything Republicans can think of in terms of these spending cuts — would add more debt than we’ve ever seen over a 10-year period in American history. Yet Ryan and other House GOP leaders continue to make outrageous statements to the contrary.

Without blushing. And without anyone calling them on it.

“The spending spree is over,” Ryan said the other day, after the House passed his blueprint. “We cannot keep spending money we don’t have.” Except that by his own reckoning Ryan is planning to spend $6 trillion we don’t have in the next decade alone.

“We have too many people worried about the next election and not worried about the next generation,” Ryan added. So Ryan is expressing his concern by adding at least $14 trillion to the debt between now and when his plan finally balances the budget sometime in the 2030s (and only then if a number of the plan’s dubious assumptions come to pass).

“We cannot afford to ignore this coming fiscal train wreck any longer,” Eric Cantor says. “Complacency is not an option.” Well, if $14 trillion in fresh debt and unbalanced budgets until the 2030s do not amount to “complacency,” I’d hate to hear what the GOP definition of “profligacy” is.

Yes, I know: The Democrats’ plans are no better on the debt (though it must be noted that the Congressional Progressive Caucus plan wins the fiscal responsibility derby thus far; it reaches balance by 2021 largely through assorted tax hikes and defense cuts). But at least Democrats aren’t rattling markets by hypocritically holding the debt limit hostage while planning to add trillions in fresh debt themselves.

It’s amazing how some memes, once established as conventional wisdom, are almost impossible to dislodge, however at odds they are with the facts. Griping about this to a Prominent Media Figure the other day, I suggested that maybe if I set myself on fire in Times Square while spouting the truth about Republican debt, the truth would break through.

“Maybe,” he said. “But then you’d be seen as the radical.”

The classic definition of chutzpah was a kid who kills his parents and then asks for the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. The new definition of chutzpah is Republicans who vote for the Ryan plan that adds trillions in debt and who then say the debt limit goes up only over their dead bodies!

If I were Barack Obama, my mantra on this week’s debt tour and in the months ahead would be that we should lift the debt limit only by as much debt as is needed to accommodate Paul Ryan’s budget. The president and his team should say this every time they’re asked about the debt limit until people can’t stand hearing it any more. All I know is somebody better start saying this soon or I may be forced to do something desperate.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattmillernow.