Naming the blame

Who's at fault for the national budget crisis? Who else?

Whee! Spin City. Who's responsible for shutting down the federal government and quite possibly sending the financial markets into a hopeless tizzy?

"You hit me first."
"Did not."
"Did too."
"Did not."
"Did so."
We live in a great nation. Amen.

Actually, taking the popular, fail-safe, appearin'-as-wise-as-a-treeful-of-owls, plague-on-both-their-houses position here is as gutless as it is easy.

The who-to-blame conundrum is just not that tough a nut to crack, although it appears to have sent the Washington press corps back into the most timid form of objectivity: "We only report what other people say; we do not find the facts."

For example, here's a dandy story from The Associated Press, reporting on how we got into this pickle: "Clinton said Gingrich promised in the spring to force a budget crisis, if necessary, to impose the GOP will." Now, how much effort does it take to determine that House Speaker Newt Gingrich said exactly that, at several times in several places? He did, he did, as we Texans say.

Don't know if you were privileged to hear Gingrich on Saturday blaming the entire impasse on President Clinton, but it was a bravura performance. He sounded exactly like Oliver Hardy saying to Stan Laurel, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into."

Unable to restrain himself, Gingrich also took several cheap shots at Clinton for having gone off to play golf after announcing that he wouldn't sign a continuing budget resolution draped with extraneous matter, including a Medicare premium increase. The idea of Clinton golfing (!) at such a time almost rendered the speaker apoplectic; the implication was that this president (a word that Gingrich manages to invest with contempt) is a lazy do-nothing.

Now, there are many things for which Clinton can be criticized, but not working hard enough is not one of them. His famous 15-hour days are a matter of both record and legend. As a matter of negotiating technique, when you have to resolve a critical issue with an unfriendly adversary, it is not wise to start out blaming everything on your opposite number and then to take cheap shots at same. This is ill-advised. Unproductive.

Clinton never gets credit for anything, so let me bravely swim against the entire Washington press corps and point out that Bill Clinton, faced for the past 11 months with the most hostile, nasty, relentlessly partisan Congress we have ever seen, has behaved like a real grown-up. In fact, I wish Virginia Clinton Kelley were still around so I could congratulate her on having taught that man good manners.

Newt Gingrich, who appears to have no sense of restraint whatever, has blamed Susan Smith's drowning her two children in South Carolina on the Democrats. He has blamed the death of a three-year-old in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on New Dealism, and he has called Democrats "morally bankrupt" while he himself has been embroiled in a series of ethical imbroglios, less than half of which were enough to drive Jim Wright from the same office.

It is true that while out on the campaign trail, at clearly political rallies, Clinton has taken some shots at the Republicans and engaged in a little ridicule of them. But when he is in Washington, speaking as president, he has been consistently mannerly, serious and (in the opinion of this liberal populist) more than adequately ready to reach compromise. To blame Clinton now for the current budget impasse is outside of enough, and it's damn time someone said so.

Lee Howell, former press secretary to Gingrich, said: "There is the Newt Gingrich who is the intellectual, appealing and fun to be with. And there's the Newt Gingrich who is the bloodthirsty partisan who'd just as soon cut your guts out as look at you. And who, very candidly, is mean as hell."

On November 29, 1994, Gingrich said: "We don't particularly want to have a single ounce of compromise with those who still believe they can somehow improve and prop up and make work a bureaucratic welfare state."

My own modest contribution to Gingrichiana is the observation that the man regularly accuses others of that of which he is guilty himself. In a recent attack on Clinton, Gingrich said, "When you have a president who is capable of making up whatever fantasies fit his current position, I don't know how, as a serious person, you can do anything."

I am informed that this is a phenomenon well-known to psychiatrists; I've never seen it so clearly or so often in politics before. Pardon me, but I see no reason to pretend to objectivity on this. The facts are there, and the record is there--we can all fairly blame Newt Gingrich for this fine mess.

Favorite moment in the Great Budget Impasse (so far): according to USA Today, at Monday's late-night budget meeting, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas' own, took offense when President Clinton pointed his finger at him. That sort of thing isn't done in Texas, Armey said.

In Arkansas, President Clinton replied icily, politicians don't attack another politician's wife.

It's a little unclear which insult to his wife Clinton had in mind. In 1993, Armey told a convention of real-estate agents in Plano, Texas, that "Hillary Clinton bothers me a lot. I realized the other day her thoughts sound a lot like Marx. She hangs around a lot of Marxists. All her friends are Marxists."

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