- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Babes and bonhomie replaced bombast for a few minutes this week in Congress, striking dumb with delight the easily impressed folks who think that all it takes to solve the nation’s problems is an infusion of civility, making nice and what used to be called good manners.

Joe Biden was on his best behavior, doing what he does best, charming the children and grandchildren of some of his old Senate colleagues. When one little boy told the veep that there ought to be a Lego store in Washington, good old Joe listened as if the lad were his economics guru, and applauded the boy’s suggestion as “thinking about jobs.” Over in the House, Nancy Pelosi made a production of handing over the symbol of speaker power to John A. Boehner (“this is a bigger gavel than some around here”), but only after a long valedictory about what a terrific speaker she had been. Mr. Boehner was reduced to tears, which is not difficult, twice reaching into his pocket for a soggy handkerchief to wipe away a teardrop or two.

Mr. Boehner is entitled to his emotions, and a manly speaker’s out-of-control waterworks only shows how dramatically the American culture is a-changing. Ed Muskie, the other half of the Humphrey-Muskie presidential ticket of 1968, blew whatever chance he had to win the Democratic presidential nomination four years later when he cried on camera — or appeared to cry — or at least decried a newspaper’s criticism of his wife. He insisted for the rest of his life that he was wiping snowflakes, not teardrops, from his face, but a widely published photograph of the incident spiked his front-running campaign, and he was soon overtaken by George McGovern.

The new speaker has become the object, if not the butt, only of mild jokes, leaving him free to irrigate his eyes at will. But his job over the next two years is to make Democrats cry, and despite the bonhomie of the opening day of the 112th Congress, the lines are drawn for a rowdy showdown with Barack Obama and his wounded Democrats. The speaker’s tea party allies of November won’t be impressed by Republican tears and soft answers to turn away Democratic wrath. They came to town suspicious of Republican resolve, the tendency of the Grand Old Party to waver in the face of pressure, to cave at the first sound of the popguns.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, is chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, is chairman of the House Budget Committee. more >

The new speaker is saying all the right things, warning of the “hard work and tough decisions” ahead as the nation recovers in fits and spurts from the worst recession since the Great Depression ended with the outbreak of World War II. “No longer can we fall short,” he said as he took possession of the speaker’s gavel. “No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.”

But the unexpected intrudes. Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, taking the lead on budget strategy, took a hearty kick at the can when he said the Republican promise to cut $100 billion in spending this year might not be possible after all. The promised cuts have been “compromised” by government spending already in the pipeline, and maybe cutting spending by $50 billion is a more realistic goal. Some of the tea party outriders think this sounds like somebody is already in the Republican kitchen, cooking up waffles, but the chefs say no, the noise from the kitchen is only the clatter of someone trying to deal with dirty dishes the Democrats left in the sink.

“We’ve got this sort of gap period that we’re operating in now to take care of the next fiscal year,” Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, tells National Journal. “So it’s just sort of a formulaic challenge.” Mr. Ryan vows to get tough with the big spenders who want to raise the debt limit that never seems to limit the debt. “I’m not interested in raising the debt ceiling on the hope that a promise will be fulfilled at a later time. I’m only interested in raising the debt ceiling if we get concessions on spending, on real controls to get our fiscal situation turned around and headed in the right direction.”

This is where the Democrats and Republicans will collide first. The president, the author of the fix, now invokes raising the debt limit as “responsible” and necessary to protect “the full faith and credit of our government.” Nothing about cutting the size of government, which is what that “shellacking” in November was all about. Bonhomie and good manners will have to wait.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.