By Dana Milbank
Sunday, September 5, 2010; A15
There was a time, not too long ago, when a politician could talk about tits in public.
In 1992, Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, complained in a speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures about how Social Security, veterans benefits and other programs had made America "like a milk cow with 250 million tits." As best I can tell, the remark drew no attention or complaint.
Simpson reprised the line two weeks ago, updating it only for the population count. In an e-mail to the head of a Social Security advocacy group, he said that, in America, "We've reached a point now where it's like a milk cow with 310 million tits!" This time, it was an udder debacle.
Simpson's e-mail drew demands from half a dozen congressional Democrats that he resign as co-chairman of President Obama's debt reduction commission. Women's and retiree groups formed a "Fire Simpson Campaign," and Simpson apologized. He shouldn't have.
Simpson was merely paraphrasing the satirist H.L. Mencken, who once said FDR regarded the government as "a milk cow with 125 million teats." Tit is a variation of teat, from the Middle English tete, from the Old English titt, from the Middle High German zitze. It's vulgar when referring to a woman's anatomy, but Simpson was talking about a cow.
In a larger sense, the outrage only confirmed that Simpson's simile was spot on. If the commission does its job right, it will recommend cuts across the government -- the Pentagon, social programs, entitlements, veterans' benefits -- as well as tax increases. That's the only way to solve the debt mess. Special-interest groups on the left and right, the real sucklings at the public teat, don't want this to happen -- so they derailed the effort in Congress to name a commission and now want to discredit Obama's version.
The latest attempt came this week, again directed at the painfully blunt Simpson, who dared to question the expansion of veterans' disability benefits to cover illnesses not necessarily related to their military service. "The irony," Simpson told the Associated Press, is "that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess."
Again, outrage rained from the critics (including, tellingly, some of those who objected to the "tits" remark). The Veterans of Foreign Wars protested that it "believes in fiscal responsibility, but veterans' programs are sacrosanct."
Simpson, an Army veteran, is again correct. If vets are sacrosanct, Social Security is sacrosanct, low taxes are sacrosanct and everything else is sacrosanct, we'll have a whole herd of sacred cows and an economy like Greece's.
The folksy and salty Simpson, who turned 79 years old on Thursday and stands 79 inches tall, has long been one of my favorites in politics. As somebody known to cause offense with the occasional turn of phrase, I think he deserves some slack when he speaks about "greedy geezers" -- and when, in arguing for limiting Social Security to those who need it, he decries retirees who "live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount." He should get credit for being colorful, provocative and honest in an arena that discourages all three.
In 2006, I wrote about Simpson when he returned to town, nine years after his retirement from the Senate, to scold Republicans for having "rocks for brains" because they refused to work with Democrats. "In politics," he said, "there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises among groups, resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom."
Simpson is exactly the right man for the debt commission: a dealmaker. His proposal for Social Security is hardly the most radical. Who would liberals rather have representing the Republicans on the debt commission? The Senate nominee from Alaska, Joe Miller, who says "we've got to transition out of the Social Security arrangement"? Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul, who calls Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" from which people should "opt out"? Colorado Senate nominee Ken Buck, who calls Social Security "horrible, bad policy"? Or Nevada nominee Sharron Angle, who wants to "phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized"?
Compared with those scary story lines, Simpson's talk of bovines is PG-rated. What's changed since he floated that Mencken line 18 years ago is not him, but us. Let's stop looking for reasons to take offense and start listening to what the man is saying.