White House spokesman Robert Gibbs is in deep trouble for committing one of Washington’s most unforgivable sins. He spread a vicious truth.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gibbs said out loud what every analyst in the capital knows: “There’s no doubt” that Republicans could regain control of the House in November. But his frankness caused such dismay in the party ranks that the White House dispatched Joe Biden to say on ABC’s “This Week” that he was “absolutely confident” the Democrats were in “great shape” with the voting public.
Gibbs’ remark was so noteworthy because it was so rare. The fastest-growing industry in Washington, D.C., today goes by different names: spin control, message discipline, crisis management, image branding. These are not exactly euphemisms for lying but they are certainly not formulas for truth-telling, either. Here’s a good rule to follow for the next 100 days until the fall elections: Anyone with a vested interest in the outcome can’t be trusted. The honest brokers are out of power and want to stay there.
Two of the most valuable candor merchants out there today are Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of a commission established by President Obama to recommend a solution for the nation’s exploding budget deficits. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, retired from the Senate after 18 years; Bowles, a Democrat from North Carolina, was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and an unsuccessful Senate candidate.
Both are liberated from the burden of ambition to speak their minds freely. “There are many who hope we fail,” Simpson said recently, and if anything, he was understating the problem. Liberals say no solution should cut social programs, and conservatives say tax increases should be off the table. Neither side is willing to face reality, but they are both wrong, and Bowles said as much in a recent talk to the nation’s governors. “This debt is like a cancer,” he warned, “that will destroy the country from within.
“We can’t grow our way out of this,” insisted Bowles. “We could have decades of double-digit growth and not grow our way out of this enormous debt problem. We can’t tax our way out. ... The reality is we’ve got to do exactly what you all do every day as governors. We’ve got to cut spending or increase revenues or do some combination of that.”
Simpson, who works hard at being folksy, put the problem a bit differently: “I was in the Senate for 18 years, and the cry to me was always, ‘Al, go bring home the bacon.’ Well, the pig has died.”
Yes, it has. And it’s refreshing when someone says so. Take Rep. Bob Inglis, an obscure backbencher from South Carolina who lost the Republican primary this past spring and is firing some parting shots at his old party.
Sarah Palin, complained Inglis, exercised “the lowest form of political leadership” by accusing the Democrats of advocating “death panels” in their healthcare bill. It was not true, and she knew it, he said, but she was deliberately deceiving the voters by “preying on their fears” and few, if any, Republicans were willing to challenge her.
The “birthers” who question the president’s legitimacy are also trading in fear, he said: “Why do we do that? We do it because we want to vilify the other side. We want to make them into the big bad guys.” And racism, Inglis insisted, helps fuel that invidious campaign: “I love the South. I’m a Southerner. But I can feel it.”
Obama himself could use some honest advice on the subject of Afghanistan, and a particularly piercing critique comes from Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. A former adviser to Republican presidents, Haass is now outside the partisan system and free to write in the latest Newsweek: “The war the United States is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources.”
Any politician running for office who made that point could and would be accused of “cutting and running,” of “abandoning the troops” and “undermining morale.” Only an independent voice like Haass can afford to take the heat.
So here’s to the truth-tellers: Bowles and Simpson, Inglis and Haass and, yes, Robert Gibbs. When the pig dies, someone has to find the courage to say so.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.