They pretended to have been hopeful. “I thought it was an olive branch,” Paul Ryan said in the basement of the Capitol this afternoon, a few hours after he joined a cadre of House Republicans, at the behest of the President, at George Washington University for Obama’s policy speech. Instead — surprise! — the Republicans were disappointed. More than disappointed, to hear them tell it. “I’ve very disappointed in President Obama,” Ryan said, who deemed the speech “excessively partisan, dramatically inaccurate and hopelessly inadequate.”
One by one, his colleagues stepped to the mic to launch partisan attacks at the President for launching partisan attacks. They accused Obama of packaging campaign rhetoric as policy, of baiting voters with class warfare, of engineering the slow death of the American dream, of being nonspecific and maybe a little boring. Quipped conference chairman Jeb Hensarling: “I missed lunch for this?” But it was the House Budget chair, whose “Path to Prosperity” plan Obama savaged, who offered the most strident criticism. “Exploiting people’s emotions of fear, envy and anxiety is not hope. It’s not change. It’s partisanship,” said Ryan, in a wink at Obama’s old campaign slogan. It was a telling dig, since Republicans are seeking to portray Obama’s speech as a political gambit that dovetails with the launch of his re-election campaign.
None of this is surprising in the slightest; despite the trope, Washington’s backroom deals are often less dispiriting than politicians’ public performances. Just like last week, when John Boehner, Harry Reid and their aides hashed out a deal in the confines of their Capitol suites in between turns bashing each other before the cameras, the important negotiations on fiscal policy in the months to come will take place behind the scenes. Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the White House’s deficit-reduction commission, may have hit it on the nose when he urged reporters to “pray for the Gang of Six.”
Obama’s speech was the Dem0crats’ opening salvo in the spending-reduction debate’s new phase, a shot fired as the parties prepare for a looming vote over the federal debt ceiling. Before he’d even delivered it, Republican leaders who met with Obama in the Oval Office Wednesday morning were laying down their markers, warning that tax increases on the wealthy–which are coupled with spending cuts in the $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan Obama sketched–were a non-starter. “He is asking Congress to raise the debt limit to continue paying Washington’s bills. The American people will not stand for that unless it is accompanied by serious action to reduce our deficit. More promises, hollow targets and Washington commissions simply won’t get the job done,” Boehner said in a statement after the speech.
It was equally unsurprising that Democrats lauded the afternoon address, which blistered Republicans for trying to balance the budget on the backs of the less fortunate while seeking lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans. “Republicans are drawing lines in the sand already to protect their top priority – not seniors, not kids, not investments in our economy, but trillions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
Between votes Wednesday afternoon, Hoyer huddled with Nancy Pelosi on the Democrats’ side of the floor, while Republicans milled about on theirs. The sad fact is that before the two sides can make progress, were going to have to endure many, many more mock-shocked press conferences and pre-cooked attacks.