Drop-dead date brought out the tortured metaphors

No politician wanted to blink first in debt fight

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON - President Obama three weeks ago compared the hard task of creating a bipartisan, comprehensive plan tackling the nation’s deficit to digesting green vegetables.

“We might as well do it now; pull off the Band-Aid,’’ he said. “Eat our peas.’’

In the end, the peas remained on the plate: His “grand bargain’’ with the House speaker, John Boehner, failed and Congress instead cobbled together a pared-down - and some would say unpalatable - version.

“This deal is a sugar-coated Satan sandwich,’’ proclaimed Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat. “If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.’’ Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, concurred, adding, “with Satan fries on the side.’’

Congress passed that debt plan yesterday, saving the government from running out of money and the country from a daily overdose of tortured metaphors. The politicians have compared the vitriolic debate, calcified stances, and the legislation yoking spending cuts with a higher debt ceiling to everything from turning a battleship around to drinking a glass of sweet tea. To rally the rank and file, they have used sports. Movies have been referenced, biblical comparisons trotted out.

“We do not want to be known as a country that pays its bills out of a cigar box,’’ Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters.

“The Tea Party Republicans are driving the country into a Thelma and Louise moment,’’ said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat, referring to the climactic, canyon catapulting scene of that movie. “Unfortunately the American people are tied into the back seat.’’

For inspiration, House Republicans played a clip from “The Town,’’ the movie about Boston bank robbers in which a character played by Ben Affleck tells his coconspirator: “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. We’re gonna hurt some people.’’

Affleck, an ardent Democrat, suggested a better fit would have been another of his films, “The Company Men,’’ in which he plays a white-collar worker who loses his job as his corporate bosses pack away profits.

Members of Congress are not known for brevity and, in a building normally packed with 535 politicians they have to be creative to stick out. At times they have been sober, trying to calm financial markets - and constituents. But as the debate dragged on, the politicians seem to be weighed down by a deficit of ways to describe the situation.

When Vice President Joe Biden met with Democrats, he talked of the “sword of Damocles’’ hanging over their heads. (He also reportedly compared dealing with Republicans to negotiating with terrorists.)

When Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, rose to the Senate floor last week, he used a comparison that would fit the Bay State’s maritime history. “These are completely dangerous and uncharted waters that we’re sailing into,’’ said Kerry, a sailor himself.

Republicans had numerous ways to explain their side. One favorite metaphor was that the country was a giant aircraft carrier, and newly elected House Republicans were trying to turn it in a new direction.

“Change in the way that Washington spends taxpayer dollars is often like redirecting or turning an aircraft carrier,’’ said House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. “It is a monumental task.’’

When leaders unveiled a version of their plan last week, Representative James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, found it was not all that hard to swallow.

“I like tea sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it,’’ Lankford said. “This is not super sweet tea. But it is not unsweetened, either.’’

Senator Joe Lieberman took the practice to a new level, employing four metaphors over the course of three minutes.

“Who’s going to blink first?’’ the independent from Connecticut said. “It’s a game of chicken, in which the losers are going to be the American people.’’

He then compared the situation to Russian roulette, and in the next breath compared it to a more child-friendly game.

“Sometimes I’ve had this feeling that this would be that game of hot potato,’’ Lieberman said. “And whoever was holding the hot potato as we got to next Monday was going to have to eat it. Because the alternative would be default and disaster for our economy. So watch the hot potato.’’

(The hot potato ended up in the Senate yesterday, although no senators were spotted eating one.)

Some turns of phrase are too much, even for politicians.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, a member of the Republican leadership, was asked whether he believed the administration’s case that Aug. 2 was the “drop dead date’’ for action to avert an economic downfall.

“Let’s not use drop dead,’’ Kyl said.

“But that’s our target date for achieving a result.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at