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John Boehner’s dangling conversation

I don’t know much about what kind of research or thought goes into determining the words politicians are told to use at various points for various purposes.  During a typical interview, let’s say on the Sunday morning political talk shows, you don’t need to listen real hard to know that certain words are in the script. But I’ve seldom seen a more blatant display, nor one more insulting to the intelligence of the audience, than House Speaker John Boehner’s performance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

What does Boehner want from President Obama? Conversation. What does he need to open the government back up and prevent the debt limit from being breached? Conversation.

You can watch the whole interview and also get a transcipt, here. But trust me, these are all things Boehner said, in just 14 minutes, and I swear I am not using any of them twice:

1. BOEHNER: George, the House has passed four bills to keep the government open and to provide fairness to the American people under Obamacare. And even after the Senate has rejected — they’ve rejected all four of them. And even after the four rejections, we asked to sit down with the Senate and have a conversation. They said, no.

2. BOEHNER: The American people expect in Washington, when we have a crisis like this, that the leaders will sit down and have a conversation. I told my members the other day, there may be a back room somewhere, but there’s nobody in it.

3. and 4.: We’re interested in having a conversation about how we open the government and how we begin to pay our bills. But it begins with a simple conversation.

5.  It’s about having a conversation.

6. Clearly there was a conversation about doing this.

7., 8. and 9.: It’s time for us to sit down and have a conversation. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what I’ve offered for the last 10 days. Let’s sit down and have a conversation. You know, we’ve had conversations before. Why can’t we have one here?

10. It’s not their [federal employees’] fault that the leaders in Washington won’t sit down and have a conversation.

11., 12., 13.: BOEHNER: Listen, the debt limit is right around the corner. The president is saying, I won’t negotiate. I won’t have a conversation. Even though, President Reagan negotiated with Democrats who controlled the Congress back then. Even though President George Herbert Walker Bush had a conversation about raising the debt limit. During the Clinton administration, there were three fights over the debt limit. You and I participated in several of those. And even President Obama himself in 2011 went through a negotiation. Now, he’s saying no. I’m not going to do this. I’m going to tell you what, George. The nation’s credit is at risk because of the administration’s refusal to sit down and have a conversation.

14. BOEHNER: I told the president [Me (in a stage whisper): but apparently not during a conversation], there’s no way we’re going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us.

15: STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to press you on this issue of the risks of not passing a clean debt limit. The Treasury Department put out a report just the other day, where they said it would be unprecedented and catastrophic, that would be the impact of failing to pass a debt limit. They’re going to say, credit markets could freeze. The value of the dollar could plummet. U.S. interest rates could skyrocket. The negative spillovers could reverberate around the world, and there might be a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.Do you agree with that assessment?

BOEHNER: I do. And the president is putting the nation at risk by his refusal to sit down and have a conversation.

16., 17.: My goal here is not to have the United States default on their debt. My goal here is to have a serious conversation about those things that are driving the deficit and driving the debt up. And the president’s refusal to sit down and have a conversation about this is putting our nation at risk of default.

18.: The president canceled his trip to Asia. I assumed — well, maybe he wants to have a conversation. I decided to stay here in Washington this weekend. He knows what my phone number is. All he has to do is call.

19.: I’m willing to sit down and have a conversation with the president.

20.: I don’t want the United States to default on its debt. But I’m not going to raise the debt limit without a serious conversation about dealing with problems that are driving the debt up. 

21.: I’ve been willing to sit down with the president and have this conversation. His refusal to negotiate is what’s putting the government at risk of default.

22.: George, I’m ready for the phone call. I’m ready for a conversation.

OK, all done with that. Just 22 Boehnerian references his desire to have a conversation (and apparently he wants to have it sitting down) and a couple of vague hints about whom he blames for the lack of a conversation. And maybe we shouldn’t count No. 6, which was a reference to a previous conversation that actually did occur.

I don’t know about others in the watching/listening audience, I could barely hear anything he said other than the word “conversation.” And now that I’ve studied transcript, there were a few things in there that might have been worth hearing. For example, Boehner’s demands in addition to waiving the implemention of the mandates in Obamacare, he also wants the conversation to be about cutting entitlements. But I’ll leave that for another day or a smarter pundit. I’ll just conclude by briefly beating my obsession with “conversation” a little further into the ground.

I guess, Boehner, and whomever else was involved in devising the “conversational” strategy, believes that if you called it a, let’s say, “negotiation” or said that you want the president to make a “concession,” it might lead to some bad thoughts about whether one agrees or disagrees with the Repubulican bargaining positions. But heck, if someone wants to have a conversation, it’s rude and stubborn not have one. And if the public can accept that the continuation of the shutdown and the threat to economy represented by the debt limit is about Obama being too busy or too snobby or too high and mighty to have a goshdarn conversation for goodness sake, that might change those polls that generally say the public blames the Republicans more than Obama for causing the crisis. But if so, c’mon guys, a little subtlety please. Ten or 15 references to “conversation” might’ve sufficed.

By the way, if the “dangling conversation” headline on this puppy was mysterious, it’s an homage to poetry of the early Paul Simon, back in and-Garfunkel days.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/07/2013 - 04:30 pm.

    And the superficial sighs,

    if I recall the lyrics correctly.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/07/2013 - 05:07 pm.

    Wasted “conversation”.The

    Wasted “conversation”.

    The Republican watchers know what is wanted.

    The Democratic watchers know what is wanted.

    The people who are unaware are certainly not watching some damn yakity-yak Sunday morning snooze-fest.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/07/2013 - 05:30 pm.

    Not mysterious….

    As I recall, the next line is
    “superficial smile”.
    Actually, the whole song could be a metaphor for the current state of politics.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2013 - 06:17 pm.

    A semantic exercise

    t’s not a conversation that Mr. Boehner wants, it’s a capitulation. Moreover, it’s a capitulation to the position of the wild-eyed tea party types in the tri-corner hats jumping up and down over there on the right wing of the stage. At least in part, it’s a conversation Mr. Boehner wants because it will enable him to keep his job, and remain #3 on the constitutional list of presidential possibilities.

    The party that consistently claims it’s somehow more patriotic and “genuinely American” seems perfectly willing to wreck the economy of the country over a health care law — not a proposal, but a *law* — that’s already been tested in the courts, and that has just begun to go into effect. It’s a law popular enough among its intended audience that federal and state websites related to it have had difficulty keeping up with the demand from the 20% or so of the population that stand to benefit from that law. Republicans have provided no alternative to that law beyond “You’re on your own,” or, in a few cases, “Let’s do more of what already doesn’t work.”

    Mr. Boehner may have been reluctant to try extortion as a method of “conversation,” but reluctant or not, he’s certainly adopted it, and seems unwilling to try a different approach to the “conversation” except to use a different word. It’s still extortion, and if the Republican Party carries out its present strategy to allow the nation to go into default because the Party doesn’t like a new health care law, they will have crossed the line, in my household at least, from spirited opposition to treason. Wrecking the economy, destroying the value of the dollar, defaulting on the legitimate debt of the United States, throwing hundreds of thousands of government employees out of work, those are all things that directly provide aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States. The Party that usually waves the flag longest and most obtrusively will be the party that betrays that flag.

    Conversation would be between two friends, or, if not friends, at least two acquaintances who were inclined to like each other, and listen respectfully to a different view. I’ve seen no evidence of that on Mr. Boehner’s part, though, if I recall correctly, Mr. Obama did invite the Speaker over to the White House for a beer a few years back. It’s not just difficult, it’s both impossible and foolhardy to try to have a “conversation” with someone who’s holding a loaded gun to your head.

  5. Submitted by Brandt Hardin on 10/07/2013 - 08:19 pm.


    Is the sole purpose of the Republican Party to bamboozle Obama now? In the process, they’re making every last American dance for their dinner (and healthcare.)

  6. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/07/2013 - 08:58 pm.

    Frank Luntz?

    I don’t think this has Frank Luntz’ finger prints on it. Luntz is better than this.

  7. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/07/2013 - 10:34 pm.

    It is the Republican way

    Repeat and repeat and repeat in hopes that the public will start to think their fantasies are real. Say one thing out front and working in the background is a totally different scenario. McConnell and Paul, on open mic ,last week pretty much defined how the Republicans work, which Boehner demonstrated by repeating and repeating and repeating. If it is bull when they start it is bull when they finish.

  8. Submitted by Frank Clark on 10/08/2013 - 06:49 am.

    Not right time

    BOEHNER: The American people expect in Washington, when we have a crisis like this, that the leaders will sit down and have a conversation.

    If they can only talk during a crisis when they can put pressure on things are really gone. I would think most American people feel that they should have been talking/working together already and a real budget should have been done months or years ago. Does Sequester mean anything to these people…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 09:51 am.

      When the crisis has already happened

      and you’ve lost the argument,
      then you ask for a conversation to delay the inevitable.

  9. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/08/2013 - 09:39 am.

    Extortion is right

    Mr. Schoch has it about right. But I believe Speaker Boehner is bluffing. I’m more concerned about President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid calling his bluff. So far, I haven’t seen anything that impresses me they can see through Boehner and his hooligans.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 09:52 am.

    And then there’s

    the last Simon and Garfunkel song:
    “My Little Town”:
    ‘Nothing but the dead and the dying in my little town’.

  11. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/08/2013 - 01:53 pm.

    Question for Eric or anyone else who might know

    I just heard Obama finally say something I’ve been thinking for a while now – that “raising the debt ceiling” is a dumb name for the process that’s currently in peril.

    Anyone have any idea of the origin of such a klunky and non-representative name? Any idea why they don’t just call it what it is – “A bill to pay the debts we’ve incurred”.

    I can maybe – MAYBE – see where the word “raising” comes into it. After all, “raising money” is a common phrase.

    But “ceiling”? Where does that come from?

    Overall, it’s easy to see why the actual meaning can be misconstrued when it’s such a badly-named procedure. What would be a better name, and how do we go about getting it in place?

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/08/2013 - 06:04 pm.

      Ceiling, cap, maximum – it’s all the same.

      “Over the years, Congress has passed a series of laws that set tax rules and spending policies. When the amount the government spends under those laws is higher than the amount of taxes the government brings in, it has to borrow money to fund the difference. The accumulated past deficits add up to the total debt. But there’s another law that puts a legal cap on the amount of debt the U.S. Treasury can issue. So even though the debt is just a residual of all those past tax and spending decisions, it has to be passed as well.”

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/08/2013 - 06:17 pm.

      Because it’s not

      A ceiling is an upper bound, or limit.
      A bill to pay (all) the debts that the government has incurred would set no upper limit on how much could be spent to pay off debts.
      Raising the debt ceiling increases the upper bound, but there is still a limit. It would not authorize unlimited debt payments.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/09/2013 - 06:47 am.

        But the debts have already been incurred

        Wouldn’t the time to be talking about “limits” or “ceilings” more appropriately be at the time those debts were incurred in the first place?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/09/2013 - 09:52 am.

          Obama’s point

          has been that the debts already incurred by Congress are not negotiable; they must be paid according to the Constitution and economic reality.
          However, the Executive must incur a certain amount of short term debt in order to insure adequate cash flow. That’s why businesses have lines of credit with banks.

          • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/09/2013 - 10:48 pm.


            I’m not saying Congress shouldn’t “raise the debt ceiling” in order to pay the debts we’ve incurred. Of course we should.

            I’m just pointing out that the unfortunate semantic imagery inherent in the name “raise the debt ceiling” lends itself to misappropriation for willful misconstruing (something the Republicans under the tutelage of past masters such as Karl Rove have become all too good at).

            A better phrase/name that doesn’t read like a legal economist’s inside baseball playbook might do a better job at staving off public misunderstanding of what’s actually at stake and give the opposition less ammunition to throw around inappropriately.

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