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May The Best Liar Win

October 22, 1998 [ Printer-friendly version ]

For those wondering why the public is not more outraged at the president's deceptions, the answer can be found in the Republican lies about the budget deal. Without so much as a by-your-leave, the Republican leaders abandoned their much-touted spending caps, and grinning giddily, explained that the $21 billion in additional spending was "supplemental spending."

So, in the same way that oral sex is not sex, supplemental spending is not spending.

Last February, House Majority Leader Dick Armey told the world that "an internal report at the IMF found that the fund's own activities worsened the Asian crisis. Given this report ... how can any member of Congress explain a vote to send taxpayer dollars to the IMF?"

Well, this week he voted to send $18 billion of taxpayer dollars -- not a penny less than the president requested -- to the IMF. And with a straight face, he called the modest IMF reforms that accompanied the $18 billion "a major step toward a more responsible international economic policy." Whatever. I suppose it depends on what you mean by "responsible" and what you mean by "major" and what you mean by "a."

I'm feeling increasingly about the leaders of both parties the way Mary McCarthy felt about Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes," she said, "is a lie, including `and' and `the'." But the public seems to consider politicians' abuse of language and the truth as resignedly as they do carbon-monoxide emissions. We don't like them, but we can't imagine a world without them.

So as I was hit with the exhaust fumes of the Republican leaders' budget rationalizations, I had an epiphany about the public's response to the president's lies. It's not that they don't care about the lying, it's just that the image of Newt Gingrich holding the gavel during any impeachment hearings understandably strikes them as ludicrous. Gingrich, who clung to power instead of resigning over his own ethics violations, is once again Bill Clinton's best insurance policy against impeachment.

"There is almost no national desire for a bigger government with more pork barrel," Gingrich proclaimed defiantly in 1993. But the 4,000-page, half-a-trillion-dollar budget is crammed full of oinkers. Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) has released a 54-page list of "objectionable items" and blasted the budget as the product of "back-room negotiations, business as usual, and pork-barrel politics." Sen. Max Baucus, (D-Mont.) agreed, calling the negotiations a "corrupt" process that "disenfranchises most senators." If senators are feeling disenfranchised, imagine how millions of ordinary citizens with no K street lobbyists must be feeling.

Here is a trio of my favorite pork morsels: $9.8 million for Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth to move a lighthouse in North Carolina that the Army Corps of Engineers believes shouldn't be moved at all; $4 million for Republican Sen. Al D'Amato to fund an Internet project for a history center in Manhattan; $6 million for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas to finance the Robert Dole Institute of Public Service and Policy.

Gingrich -- the man who led the rebellion against George Bush's 1990 budget compromise -- now sounds just like the vision-free president he helped drive from office: "In a free society you have to have give and take. ... If we don't work together on big issues, nothing gets done." This fatuous kind of talk the speaker calls a sign of having "grown up and matured."

Indeed, on the same day the president was signing a proclamation for "National Character Counts Week," the speaker was celebrating a fire sale of GOP principles and promises. Where has all of our sense of irony gone?

"So we exchanged the Democratic cardinals for the Republican ones," said Stephen Moore, the Cato Institute's Director of Fiscal Policy Studies. "And they've succeeded in re-energizing Clinton's presidency. It's no wonder you're starting to hear behind closed doors grumblings about challenging Gingrich after the election."

So in the end, the president's best defense is the rock-bottom expectations we have of our political leaders -- which were amply borne out this week. The president's legal contortions about sex that's not sex have poisoned the national conversation, but then so have the speaker's contortions about spending that's not spending. Yes, I know that lying under oath to a grand jury is a serious felony, but ultimately this crisis is about deception, and it's really hard to think of deception without the Speaker of the House popping up in one's mind.

"It's crazy," Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told me. "We bust the budget, spend $21 billion of the Social Security trust fund, and everyone is making nice and using all this double speak so as not to hurt our chances in November."

Whatever happens in November, in the battle between two deceivers, the more practiced, polished and passionate one wins.

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