John Boehner as Miss Teen South Carolina 2007

by Neil H. Buchanan

There are a few procedural steps remaining, but it appears that the secret deal between departing Speaker John Boehner and the White House will allow the country to avoid a default as well as a government shutdown, and that this budgetary peace will last into the next presidential administration.  I will publish a Verdict column discussing the upsides and significant downside of that deal early next week, but for now, I can at least acknowledge that the answer to the titular question in my October 2 Dorf on Law post, "Thanks for Nothing, John Boehner!  Will He Leave Behind a Budgetary Mess?" is, "Mostly not."

I am happy to have been proved wrong.  It is true that the bar is set incredibly low when a Speaker of the House can be called a statesman simply for allowing the government to stay open and to pay its bills.  It is also true that Boehner himself is no moderate, and that he gleefully participated in the takeover of the House by radicals who do not hesitate to threaten economic chaos.  Still, one cannot help but think that this is one of those tiger-by-the-tail situations, with Boehner still wondering what the heck happened.

Rather than discuss the details of the budget deal, however, I want to return here to a topic that has long irked me.  Why do so many people who supposedly know better say so many stupid things about policy issues?  I will return to Boehner below, but it is important first to discuss one possible explanation for this phenomenon: laziness.  More times than I can count, I have seen a member of the press or a politician who wants to sound serious and well-informed say something about the deficit, or Social Security, or something like that.

Last month, I wrote a Dorf on Law post in which I discussed "the gravitational pull of the conventional nonsense," using as a particularly pointed example a 2006 NYT op-ed in which Adam Clymer indirectly criticized Senator Barack Obama for wanting to be president rather than stay in the Senate and "someday save Social Security."  That Social Security does not need to be saved never crossed Clymer's mind, because everyone else talks about how it needs to be saved.  Why actually learn about things when it is safer simply to parrot the conventional nonsense?

The most recent example of such laziness was a Times news analysis column (not an op-ed) this week discussing the new budget deal, in which the reporter talked about Boehner's 2011 effort "to right the country’s listing long-term fiscal ship."  Well, the ship in 2011 was not listing (even as a long-term matter), because the deficits at that time were clearly caused by the Great Recession.  And the long-term fiscal ship is not listing now, based on even the Republican-led Congressional Budget Office's forecasts.  (Both Democrats and Republicans who run the CBO consistently accompany their estimates with dire commentary, but that is merely more of the conventional nonsense.)  Yet the NYT reporter could not be bothered to think about any of that, and even though the description was utterly gratuitous -- seriously, there was no reason at all to include that claim in the article -- it was simply another example of conventional nonsense.

Of course, national politicians make such unsupportable claims all the time in other areas as well.  For readers of this blog, the most obvious example would be attacks on "judicial activism" as code for "decisions that I don't like."  Also, saying that "the science isn't in" on climate change is a useful generic way to attack something without resorting to facts.

What is more interesting than conventional nonsense, however, is what I think of as "safe nonsensical claims" that politicians make about various issues.  Because of my interests in economic policy, I notice such claims most often in that area.  What is a safe nonsensical claim, and how does that differ from conventional nonsense?  Conventional nonsense tends to be general, such as the claims that Social Security is broken or that the national debt is ruining us.  Safe nonsensical claims have more of an air of specificity to them.  As I noted in a Dorf on Law post earlier this month, some presidential candidates seem to have developed what amounts to "a nervous tic, with Republicans blurting out, 'We owe 18 trillion dollars!' almost at random."

Sure enough, during last night's Republican faux-debate, future former presidential candidate Chris Christie shouted: "We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and Al Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?"  The national debt is, as of two days ago, actually $13.03 trillion.  But that is only true if one cares about the meaning of debt, which (except when Republicans are discussing U.S. fiscal policy) means money that Party A owes to Party B.  For those who care about meaningless numbers, the government's Gross Debt is still $18.15 trillion.  But because the gross debt will (and should) at some point pass the $19 trillion mark, this is a safe nonsensical claim.

Similarly, the puzzlingly persistent presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, at last night's "kids' table" panel, went for one of his party's favorite safe nonsensical claims.  According to a news article reporting on the event (which, were it not for beat reporters and candidates' family members, would otherwise have been the proverbial tree falling in the forest), Jindal "repeatedly pressed on his fiscal policies in Louisiana. The two-term governor defended his record, which he said had cut 30,000 'state bureaucrats.'  'That’s exactly what we need to do in D.C.,' he said. Otherwise, 'we will be the next Greece.'"

Interestingly, invoking Greece is showing some staying power.  When the City of Detroit's bankruptcy troubles began, Republicans like Mitch McConnell tried to turn "Detroit!" into their domestic equivalent of "Greece!"  This had the advantage, from the Republicans' standpoint, of associating the national debt with a large city that is associated in the public's mind with labor unions, African-Americans, and violent crime.  Even so, it has been some time since I have seen reports of Republicans using Detroit in their incantations of fiscal doom.  Greece endures.

To a certain degree, however, this discussion is really about nothing more than the familiar concept of talking points.  Republicans are renowned for staying on message, and the people who decide what those talking points will be must necessarily make adjustments as, for example, they discover that "Detroit!" no longer has the desired impact.  Some politicians, however, have a unique talent for inventing nonsense of a special kind, somehow combining conventional nonsense with safe nonsensical claims to create a fresh brew that is its own brand of nonsense.

John Boehner was one of those gifted politicians, and not just as a matter of rhetoric.  The so-called Boehner Rule -- an absurd requirement that "every dollar increase in the debt ceiling requires $2 of spending reduction" -- was almost the perfect distillation of utter nonsense.  It invoked the right bogeymen, and it seemed to have some specificity to it, but if one tried to understand where it came from, or where it would lead, madness would follow.

Relatedly, Boehner has been able not just to invoke the correct talking points of the moment, and to make up pure nonsense on policy, but he is also able to leave people scratching their heads by tossing out irrelevant or outdated talking points that have only the purpose of confusing the issue.  The best recent example of this came at a press conference this week in which Boehner was trying to justify the budget deal, in response to attacks from the right fringe of his party.  He said that the alternative to the deal was a clean debt ceiling hike that would not "protect our troops."

How perfect is that?!  With nothing to say, and nothing connecting the issue at hand to the words that he was about to utter, Boehner understood that he could simply speak words that almost sounded relevant, and that that was all he needed to do.

As I thought about that performance, I realized that Boehner had turned clueless flailing into an art form.  I found myself remembering the immortal words of Caitlin Upton at the Miss Teen USA pageant in 2007, whose answer to the question, "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?" went viral on YouTube:
"I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don't have maps and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future [for our children]."
The difference between the former Miss Teen South Carolina and the former Speaker of the House is that Ms Upton has since mocked herself and shown good humor in dealing with her inadvertent infamy.  But the almost random assemblage of words that Upton spoke eight years ago provided the template for Boehner's style.  Grab words out of thin air, whether or not they are relevant to the issue under discussion, and run out the clock.  Boehner knew that he could get away with it, and even succeed because of it.  His ultimate downfall had nothing to do with his eager willingness to speak nonsense.