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The American People

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My friend Francie's mother used to be known by all as "the Nation." It was a loving nickname based on her tendency to make pronouncements to one and all about what the nation thought of a particular topic. She would laugh.

I wonder if House Speaker John Boehner has a sense of humor.

Monday night, in justifying his walk-away from budget negotiations in which he had been avidly participating until Saturday, Boehner announced that "the American people" would not accept any tax increases -- even from closing loopholes or increasing taxes on the wealthy beginning two years from now, when the economy will hopefully be less fragile.

How, one might ask, did the American people come to that conclusion when only last Friday they were open to a major deal? Did something happen to make the American people change their mind on Saturday? How could I have missed it?

I could understand if he had said: My conservative Republican base in the House won't vote for anything that remotely looks like a tax increase, even if Democrats are willing to eat Social Security and Medicare cuts, even if the ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes (or loophole closings) is 4 to 1. That would be the truth. But "the American people"?

Of course, the Republican speaker is not the only one to invoke "the American people" to cover his own political you-know-what. Politicians on both sides, most of whom speak of themselves as "we," are prone to announcing that whatever they think, or their base thinks, is what "the American people" have somehow decided.

Yes, there are certain things on which the American people probably do agree. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the American people really were shocked and appalled and angry and determined. All of us. On Veterans Day, the American people really are united in saluting those who have died for this country and in expressing our appreciation for those who put their lives on the line for our freedom. When a congresswoman is shot at a supermarket event and those who came to greet her are killed in cold blood, the American people really do condemn the violence, regardless of whether we are for or against gun control. I'm sure I could think of a few more examples if I tried, but budget policy would never be one of them.

It's easy to do what "the American people" want. Saying yes to a crowd is easy. Saying no to your base is not. I try not to pay too much attention to the on-again, off-again negotiations in Washington. It's hard to listen and not get aggravated at all the posturing and game playing. This could be an opportunity to actually make real progress on budget issues, but I'm old enough to know that any deal would require political courage and cynical enough to believe that courage is the attribute that is hardest to find in the political capital of the world.

Why be courageous when you can hide? Why focus on what is really best for the American people when you can spend your time figuring out how to get to the 50 percent plus one it takes to hold on to your job or get the next one? So the American people are facing crushing unemployment. So our kids are going to be left with these bills. So the programs senior citizens rely on are going to run out of money. The next election is only 16 months away. Get it?

We are a diverse country. When it comes to dealing with the deficit, we don't agree. We don't have a consensus. There may be a moderate majority who would like to see a sensible solution, but there are also plenty of ideologues on both sides who will try to block any assault on their sacred cows. Compromise is the mother's milk of politics precisely because there is no solution that will satisfy everyone. Pardon me, but the American people know that.

Who will tell Boehner?

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