Return of the Squirrel Sex Study Meme

Just when you thought this week in politics could not get any dumber, Speaker John Boehner, in his flailing efforts to make his party’s fiscal position going into the sequester seem more reasonable, is resorting to the oldest idiocy of them all: the claim that government spending is mostly a bunch of crazy boondoggles. Here we go:

[N]o one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cellphones, and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines.

Jonathan Chait went to the trouble of tracking down what Boehner was talking about, and of course, it’s mostly a shuck, like the ancient claims that everybody’s taxes were high because pointy-headed federal bureaucrats were paying egghead scientists to study the mating habits of squirrels. The amount of money involved in these anecdotal examples is, of course, next to nothing. And they are blatantly intended to distract attention from the bigger picture, as Chait notes:

Why have Republicans settled on this utterly inane talking point? A close look at the latest Pew poll shows it’s the only card they have to play in the fiscal showdown. The public opinion landscape is utterly bleak for Boehner. Congress is way less popular than Obama. The Republican Party is way less popular than the Democratic Party. People trust Obama more than Republicans to handle budget issues. They want a mix of revenue and spending cuts. (Even a majority of Republicans reject the cuts-only approach insisted on by GOP leaders.)

The lone bright spot on this desolate landscape is that Americans want spending cuts to account for a larger share of the deficit reduction. Now the question is framed in the most Republican-friendly way. The poll doesn’t ask about raising taxes just on the rich, which is much more popular than generalized tax hikes. It also doesn’t name specific programs like Medicare and Social Security, which Americans resolutely oppose cutting under any circumstances. What Boehner has going for him here is a generalized ignorance about the federal budget. Americans think there’s lots of waste and don’t grasp that balancing the budget through spending cuts would require cutting programs they don’t want to cut. Boehner’s best play is to keep the debate on the level of abstraction, focused on mythical waste….

So why are Republicans resorting to this very cheapest kind of demagoguery? It seems to be all they’ve got at this point:

Boehner doesn’t have an actual plan to balance the budget by making surly video-game players pay for their own damn World of Warcraft. He wants to force Obama to propose cuts to retirement programs without any revenue. He doesn’t have any apparent strategy to achieve this goal. He just has a talking point to try to wave it away.

So there’s budget-talk that exceeds the sequester in stupidity all right, and we’ll be hearing it a lot during the next week.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.