Among the Intellectualoids

E.J. the Clown

Post columnist sings at the budget circus.

By 4.13.11

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Big Top metaphors must be trendy. My friend Bill recently paraphrased the argument of one libertarian writer as "Paul Krugman is a bozo." Not to be outdone, White House advisor David Plouffe borrowed an image from the midway to denounce Donald Trump for "sideshow behavior." But even as fun-loving billionaire Trump continues to mix policy with conspiracy theory, neither he nor Krugman is likely to push Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. out from under the center ring spotlight.

Dionne careened into his most recent essay on a tirade against the "absurd, irrational, and wholly unnecessary confrontation over whether to shut down the federal government," and what he saw looking out his back door were Tea Party rally-goers cheering a speech from a "fire-eating" Indiana Congressman. Of course, "fire-eating" in this context meant "failing to agree with E.J. Dionne." If, like me, you associate fire eating with George C. Scott wearing an Army uniform in front of an American flag, or Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb like a rodeo bull, or (on the few occasions when metaphors sleep soundly) shows at Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center, then you're not from the echo chamber where progressive pundits amuse each other by sticking pins in wax figurines of conservative lawmakers or writing variations on "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."

To hear E.J. Dionne and his amen chorus on the heavily-barnacled flagships of American journalism tell it, the near-shutdown of the federal government was clear evidence of "the high cost of hating government."

What Dionne and the Bon Mots make of those Democrats who welcomed the prospect of a shutdown if it could be turned to their advantage, they do not say. They are sure that the president was determined to avoid a shutdown, but the evidence for that is inconclusive at best. You could make an equally convincing case that President Obama tried again to vote "present" rather than "yea" or "nay." One colleague of Dionne's (columnist Eugene Robinson) lent credence to that idea by describing recent Democrat tactics as an ineffective mix of caucusing, cogitating, and ruminating. "Leading" wasn't on his list but could not have been; the only Democrat tactic he seems to have missed was "scaring women and children."

The Tea Party movement, far from hating government, simply wants to see federal power exercised exclusively within its original Constitutional limits. The driving force behind this resurgent conservatism is positive, not negative. Tea Partiers are not united by a conviction that government as such is evil, but by a conviction that accountability and subsidiarity are good, and that -- as Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan put it recently -- "You cannot lift an economy when it is crushed beneath the weight of Big Government."

Dionne will not accept any part of the Tea Party critique, because it contradicts the "banana republic" narrative that he and other left-leaning pundits are starting to prefer. For them, the peasants are revolting, in every sense of that word. Dionne seems to think that the odds of finding a reasonable Tea Party member are on par with the odds of landing a job as an orchestra conductor in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

You have to think that your political opponents are evil to write things like "in no serious country do threats to shut down the government become a routine way of doing business," while conveniently ignoring the fact that there would have been no budget fight this year if the previous Congress had actually done its job. And as long as we're looking at Dionne's implied definition of "serious government," do you think he'd mind if we ask whether serious governments fund abortions, pretend that abortions are routine "health care" procedures, dabble in eugenics, and hold even national parks hostage to funding for Planned Parenthood?

Dionne changed horses late in his column by admitting that the whole "hating government" thing was a sham, because "the vast majority of Americans" oppose government shutdowns. The problem he railed against then became "recklessness in pursuit of political victory," Predictably, the "recklessness" to which he alluded had nothing to do with the presidential penchant for redistribution as "stimulus," or the strange hold that "family planning services" have on Democrat imaginations.

Despite all the clown car-packing that Dionne did in thirteen paragraphs and his tedious libel of Tea Partiers as disrespectful fanatics, I do have to give him credit for one sensible comment. "Threatening the functioning of the public sphere is not an acceptable tactic in a democracy," he wrote, and he's right, although he'd have done better to say that to the Wisconsin legislators who skipped the state rather than vote, or the SEIU functionaries who routinely slander the people who disagree with them. Where Dionne and his fellow travelers are almost invincibly wrong is in assuming that the federal government is solely responsible for maintaining "the public sphere" in these United States. Are there no civics lessons in circus school?

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.