John Boehner's 'Naked Lunch' Moment


David Corn

Does House Speaker John Boehner have any shame? You don't have to answer. That's a rhetorical question.

This past week, the Republican from Ohio put on one of the crassest performances seen in Washington in years. In a matter of seconds, he reached a level of hypocrisy that far exceeded the standard political norm and demonstrated that (despite his habit of crying at the first sign of an emotional moment) he has little empathy for many of his fellow Americans.

You will recall that during the 2010 congressional elections, Boehner had essentially only one thing to say: "Mr. President, where are the jobs?" It didn't matter to him that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had concluded (as of last August) that the Obama administration's recovery package had created or saved 3.3 million jobs and had lowered the unemployment rate by as much as 1.8 percent. Boehner incessantly and derisively repeated this talking point (no doubt tested with focus groups and polling) and gave up any pretense of having a serious discussion. His "where are the jobs" tag line was designed to suggest that there were no jobs -- to shortcut the facts. It was a brilliant piece of political rhetoric: misleading, but effective. He was engaged in the practice of the Big Lie. Boehner was so proud of his ability to shape -- or pervert -- the national political discourse, his office produced a video in October showing that his favorite line had become accepted and echoed throughout the mainstream media.

Asking again and again about jobs made it seem as if Boehner cared about the millions of unemployed Americans. But this week, he showed he doesn't have much compassion for the unemployed. At a press conference, he was asked about the loss of jobs that could be caused by the GOP's effort to slash $61 billion from government programs. "So be it," he replied, noting that over the past two years Obama has added 200,000 workers to the federal government.

Boehner was dead wrong about the 200,000 figure. ( judged it a false statement). More important was Boehner's attitude. One federal budget expert estimates that the Republican cuts could lead to 1 million people losing their jobs (650,000 of them federal workers). Boehner displayed no concern for these folks -- and no concern about the economic consequences of adding 1 million to the ranks of the unemployed. It was a callous dismissal. He didn't even grant these Americans the courtesy of crocodile tears.

It's easy to pick on federal workers. But these are the people who safeguard our food supply, protect our water and air, guide the airliners that carry us, research cures for diseases, maintain our national parks, ensure that products from overseas are safe, respond to natural disasters, and guard our leaders. Why disparage them so and treat them as if they don't matter?

Boehner and his fellow Republicans have a theory: The best way to aid the economy and create jobs is to slash government spending (while giving tax breaks to the wealthy) and reduce the deficits (which are exacerbated by those tax cuts). This notion -- which counters the idea that at a time of economic trouble the government needs to rev up the economy by spending and investing -- does not have much historical precedent. Certainly, not the Reagan years. Unemployment and inflation back then did drop after the initial Reagan recession, but Reagan added to the deficits. In fact, David Stockman, Reagan's budget guru, now contends that Reagan kick-started the process that has led to the fiscal trouble of today.

So Boehner's one big idea may be wrong and misguided. Still, if he believes it, he ought to be less Scrooge-like. His lack of sympathy for those who could lose their jobs due to the proposal he's pushing is stunning and belies his where-are-the-jobs mantra of the previous campaign. In a less-imperfect world, he'd be ridden out of Washington on a rail for such coldheartedness, his duplicity denounced far and wide (and maybe even on Fox News). But all that ensues is a day or two of bad press, with liberal partisans griping about his insensitivity. And the moment gets lost in the wash.

But it was an exchange to remember. In explaining how he had come to title a novel "Naked Lunch," William Burroughs said that beat author Jack Kerouac had suggested it and that "the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." This week Boehner had his naked lunch moment -- and what was on the fork was ugly and, worse, mean.

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