Political Hay

The Charlie Sheen Republicans

House GOP struggles to kick spending addiction.

By 4.12.11

Charlie Sheen and Lawrence O'Donnell.

What do the actor and MSNBC host have in common?

And what role does addiction play?

Hang on. First, one of Jack Kemp's favorite stories. The former congressman, HUD Secretary and vice-presidential nominee loved telling this story, always told it to effect -- and to a point certain.

"Councils of war breed timidity and defeatism," Kemp would say, quoting Douglas MacArthur quoting his own father, General Arthur MacArthur, on the eve of the invasion of Inchon in the Korean War. The senior MacArthur, overshadowed in later history by his son, was no slouch at military strategy himself -- he had begun his own distinguished military career by winning the Congressional Medal of Honor as an 18-year old in the Civil War.

Kemp would use the Inchon story repeatedly to inspire his audiences, whether a handful of staff or thousands of cheering Republicans. The one-time quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, who had the broken finger on his throwing hand molded permanently to fit a football -- a move which helped him not only continue a career others insisted was at an end but helped him quarterback the Bills to two back-to-back AFL championships -- knew a thing or two about throwing the long ball, about getting tackled, getting up and running the ball again. And again and again and again and again. Until the goal line (the Kemp-Roth tax cuts that produced some 21 million jobs and launched the Reagan Revolution) was crossed.

Jack Kemp and his favorite Inchon story come to mind as the news of the House GOP's acceptance of a budget deal with President Obama and the forces of the American Left in Congress were announced. It comes to mind as the fight to raise the debt ceiling looms as the next big fiscal fight, along with the next chapter in the budget fight. It comes to mind as President Obama prepares, reportedly, to ask for -- shocker -- higher taxes. The MacArthur story in Kemp's (historically accurate) telling went roughly as follows:

It is the summer of 1950. North Korea has successfully, out of the blue, invaded South Korea, quickly capturing the capital of Seoul as the Communists relentlessly sweep over the border and through the South Korean countryside. President Harry Truman had determined this would not stand, and MacArthur, summoned from his post-World War II post in Japan, was given command. MacArthur surveyed the situation and had an idea. It was bold, startling in its creativity. What Douglas MacArthur was planning was a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon, a coastal South Korean city on the Yellow Sea. His goal was to land well behind the Communist forces that had taken Seoul, execute a great turning movement… surprise the enemy… and defeat him. Retake the South Korean capital and begin to drive the North Koreans back over the 38th parallel.

The Pentagon, alarmed, balked. Generals were adamantly opposed. Admirals said not only no but hell no. Every conceivable reason was given as to why invading Inchon was a bad, very bad idea. No beaches, impossibly high tides or low tide mud flats. Strong currents. Shoals, rocks, small bay, narrow channel, high seawalls. Whatever Inchon was, it was not the flat beaches of France on D-Day. It was absolutely not the place to try and land 75,000 troops and maneuver over 250 ships.

On and on went the list of objections. And in the end, hearing his father's wisdom, MacArthur, possessed of clarity of vision and the courage to act on that vision, stood and said (Kemp's husky voice growing hushed here): "I can almost hear the ticking hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die… Inchon will succeed."

And so it did. Spectacularly, taking the North Koreans completely by surprise. In took a mere four days to take and secure the city, putting an abrupt halt to a series of North Korean victories and led to the re-capture of Seoul. MacArthur's bold vision -- and the steel nerve to carry it out -- was vindicated.

Kemp's point was understood exactly by his friend Ronald Reagan. This was precisely what Reagan meant when he gave his famous 1975 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference:

I don't know about you, but I am impatient with those Republicans who after the last election rushed into print saying, 'We must broaden the base of our party' -- when what they meant was to fuzz up and blur even more the differences between ourselves and our opponents.

Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?

Let us show that we stand for fiscal integrity and sound money and above all for an end to deficit spending, with ultimate retirement of the national debt.

Let us also include a permanent limit on the percentage of the people's earnings government can take without their consent.

What Reagan and Kemp were talking about was not just how to run a government -- although they both did that extensively. But they were about a much larger something else. What the two conveyed by word and deed was a psychological attitude -- the need to risk boldly to achieve greatly.

Kemp might call this being an "Inchon Republican" -- someone who understands as MacArthur had need to understand that "councils of war breed timidity."

LET'S BE CANDID. John Boehner and his Republican colleagues are fine people. The majority doubtless see themselves as conservatives.

But the failure to stand strong in the political wind for a mere $61 billion in budget cuts, settling for less than $40 billion is the decided product of a GOP council of war that is about as far from the Reagan and Kemp Inchon Republican mindset as it is possible to get, as Fox's Neil Cavuto and Mark Levin are in essence discussing right here. There is zero strategy here other than just do the best that can be done to get to the next fight and repeat the same no-strategy strategy all over again. It bears a very unsettling resemblance to product bred by timidity. 

The problem here -- the real problem -- is in fact not the budget numbers themselves.

The real problem is a Republican psychology that is unable to understand that the entire American Left, after decades and decades and decades of tax-and-spending, has now effectively become the political equivalent of an addict. An alcoholic or a drug addict, except instead of scotch or crack cocaine the drug of choice is something even more powerful: money. Specifically, your money.

To put a face on it, let's take a look at two well-known personalities and their recent outings on the television air waves.

The first, found here, is Charlie Sheen.

The second, here, is MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell in a clip from last week in which he discusses potential government defunding of Planned Parenthood (which, surprise, surprise, as events played out later did not happen).

Now.

As life would have it, I've met both Sheen and O'Donnell. The first as an extra in one of his films, the second through a mutual friend. The Charlie Sheen I met was not the one in this video of his. The man I met was completely in control of himself, nice, polite, thoroughly professional and very, very good at what he was there to do. O'Donnell is clearly not the Sheen of today. He is a media and political professional, a man of considerable talent. So what needs to be said here is not intended in any fashion as some sort of thoughtless wise-guy slur on either. But it needs to be said. Sheen and O'Donnell are by coincidence illustrating exactly the point that Inchon Republicans understand -- and others on the GOP side do not, as Reagan essentially noted in his famous "bold colors-pale pastels" speech.

What do you see when you watch Charlie Sheen in that now-famous and recent video? I have no idea in the world what was going on with him as he let himself be taped here. But the world knows what Sheen's father Martin Sheen has said, here in this instance in a story from Britain's UK Guardian: "Charlie is dealing with the most profound problems and addiction, it is no secret. His behaviour has been an example of that." And Charlie Sheen's behavior in this video does indeed seem to present a vivid illustration of this.

Now compare this with the emotional O'Donnell video. No, O'Donnell is not an alcohol or drug addict. Of course not. But he is most definitely, as is the woman whose e-mail he reads aloud -- an e-mail which causes him to start crying on camera -- something very much resembling a political version of Charlie Sheen.

Mr. O'Donnell -- and the woman whose e-mail he read -- is addicted to massive, uncontrollable spending of someone else's money. Yours. Your neighbor's. Your child, your spouse, your unborn great-great-great grandchildren. Whatever. Spending other people's money has become the crack cocaine or straight scotch of American liberalism. They cannot now -- or ever -- get enough. As it stands right now that tab to their dealer or bartender has reached over $14 trillion -- and that's before you get to the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and all the rest that approach $100 trillion. What Mr. O'Donnell is weeping about -- literally -- is the possibility that someone out there -- "wackos," as the woman calls them -- is trying to stage a political intervention that will remove the tiniest gram of their financial crack cocaine -- funding for Planned Parenthood in this case. The very thought of it literally sends him over the edge on camera, every bit as distraught in his own fashion with his political addiction as Charlie Sheen appears to be with what his father has said are serious, serious addictions to substances that certainly seem to be driving Charlie's decidedly unnerving appearance in that video.

Mr. O'Donnell weeps for defunding Planned Parenthood. Other liberals weep for defunding NPR or the EPA or this or that corner of the bureaucracy in the Education Department or the Commerce Department and on and on and on and on it goes -- $14 trillion dollars worth of it with no end in sight. Harry Reid is edgy and dry-mouthed at the mere thought of defunding a cowboy poetry festival. (Did you note that comment from Cavuto and Levin -- yes indeed, there are federal funds involved with putting on a cherry blossom parade.) And out in Wisconsin there is little short of an absolute breakdown over the thought of liberals being denied their drug of taxpayer dollars.

Like Charlie Sheen, the American Left simply cannot stop itself. This argument is no more about abortion or liberals on the radio or Harry Reid's cowboy poetry festival or cherry blossom parades than Charlie Sheen's problem is about a contract dispute with CBS. This fight is a very, very serious and life-threatening… nation-threatening… fight with addiction.

If the Left is allowed to keep doing this America will wind up just like Charlie Sheen in that video. The most vibrant country in the world will become a country of eye-rolling, mood-swinging, paranoid, shaking, incoherent, spaced-out angry dudes and dudettes demanding ever more hard cold cash -- cannibalizing in one way or another whomever or whatever refuses to hand it over.

Which is exactly why Inchon Republicans are needed now more than ever.

FAR TOO MANY REPUBLICANS have let themselves be intimidated over the years as the Left's addiction problem grew and grew and grew. Some, wary of criticism from liberals like Lawrence O'Donnell (and come to think of it, I do believe O'Donnell once cheerily confessed he was really a socialist) decided to do their best to be hip and with-it, awkwardly joining in on the fun. The thing they dreaded most was getting caught with their narrative-down. Who wants to be painted as Scrooge? The Grinch? Or, as that woman friend of O'Donnell's said, "wackos."

This trait of non-Inchon Republicans, which Reagan and Kemp openly disdained, was presumably at work as Boehner and his leadership team tried to hold their caucus together.

There is a failure  to understand that this is not a numbers issue but a moral issue about numbers. 

There are Republicans who are terrified of the liberal narrative, not understanding that after decades and decades liberals and liberalism have left themselves breathtakingly vulnerable to charges of serious, major-league addiction of the kind attributed to Charlie Sheen. So the fact that Boehner and company appear to be struggling indicates the realization hits that there are addicts in their GOP midst. Republican addicts who will somberly pledge to a trip to the Betty Ford Center for Political Spending and Anti-Economic Growth Addiction. Really. They just need one more bang. One more hit. Can't we please fund Planned Parenthood? NPR? Pell Grants? Can't we at least consider raising this tax or that just a teensy weensy? Ohhhhhhhhhh Goddddddddddddd! Please! Please! Winning! Winning!

The result? Think of House Republicans not as Inchon Republicans but Charlie Sheen Republicans.

The initial promise of the GOP was to cut $100 billion in the current fiscal year. This is Charlie Sheen promising to enter rehab and doing so. In fact, let's take an actual statement from Sheen's publicist back in early 2010:

As a preventative measure, Charlie Sheen has entered a rehabilitation facility," says publicist Stan Rosenfield. "He will take some time off his series Two and a Half Men. He has asked that his privacy be honored."

E!Online went on to say how supportive of Charlie the CBS network and the Sheen's show producers were. In political terms, this is, say, some conservative media figures applauding the $100 billion pledge. Good for those Republicans! The 2010 political intervention by the Tea Party really worked.

Uh-oh. Not so fast. Suddenly, Charlie Sheen leaves rehab. Mission accomplished, all is well. And then…and then….Suddenly Charlie is taken from his home by "emergency services." According to a news report, Sheen is "intoxicated" and suffering from "chest and abdominal pain." TMZ reports there was a "briefcase full of cocaine" delivered to Sheen's home before he launched on a "36 hour bender." Charlie goes back into rehab.

In political terms? House Republicans can't make that promised $100 billion in cuts. Political emergency services are called. It's discovered that the spending intoxication level with House Republicans is so high that they are re-entering rehab again because they can only make $61 billion in cuts. A briefcase of spending worth almost $40 billion is discovered to have been is delivered to the House -- and a Sheen-like political bender begins.

It's discovered that the spending intoxication level with House Republicans is so high that they are re-entering rehab again because they can only make $61 billion in cuts. A briefcase of spending is delivered to the House that simply can't be cut -- so a quick political bender begins.

In Charlie's case, uneasiness is abroad in the Sheen family and at CBS. Politically, unease is now abroad in the land of talk radio and elsewhere in conservative quarters. Then… then… bam!

Charlie hits the wall. He lashes out in a radio interview …at CBS, at Alcoholics Anonymous, at his producer. He says of AA: "I was shackled and oppressed by the cult of AA for 22 years." Things rapidly go downhill.

Politically? Now House Republicans announce that well, they can't make the $61 billion in cuts either. Another $20 plus billion in cocaine -- uh, cash -- has been delivered. Now they can only do less than $40 billion in cuts. Welcome to the political version of Charlie Sheen's "Sober Valley Lodge"! Can you say it? Winning! Winning!

Addiction? What addiction? Those who criticize this agreement are being depicted as the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen's view of AA. Cutting spending and setting in place tax cutting policies for economic growth is an indication of some sort of obsessive cult. A $14 trillion debt? Who cares? The only real issue they're addicted to is Winning! Winning! Tiger Blood! Duh!

SO NOW WHAT? If the promise to enter political rehab was at a $100 billion level, then $61 billion, than finally less than $40 billion -- each promise taken with the Charlie Sheenish pledge that no, really, the NEXT time we'll get it right…honest…honest. Then….

Houston, we have a problem here.

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the new GOP House Budget Committee chairman, is attempting the role of Martin Sheen here. Martin Sheen has apparently done everything the distraught parent of a 45-year old can do when said parent believes that his son is an addict. He has tried, fruitlessly, to ask for "conservatorship" of his son's affairs.

Congressman Ryan's bid for "conservatorship" of both the House Republican and the nation's approach to the $14 trillion deficit is to be found here.

With a quiet deliberation, Ryan is well out there, understanding the risks -- and taking them anyway. He understands that Mr. O'Donnell will weep, that being called a "wacko" will be the least of his problems.

But Ryan is standing his ground. He is doing an intervention. He is asking, in his Midwestern politeness, whether or not the nation and the Congress shouldn't take a hard look at themselves before they -- we -- become the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen in that video. Isn't it time to take a long and deeply serious trip to the political version of Betty Ford?

Alarmed, President Obama has announced he will now -- belatedly -- step forward with his own plan.

What does this mean?

Among other things, it means that Mr. O'Donnell and his political friends on the left are wiping their tears away because they understand more than enough to be relieved here. Obama's formal entry into the budget battle means one thing in the world of addiction: Any proposed trip to a political Betty Ford Center is off. The bartender has opened the tavern. The dealer has arrived -- not with a suitcase but an 18-wheeler trailer truck. Winning!

Which means Republicans will be facing two choices as they face the debt ceiling and 2012 budget.

Summoning their inner Inchon.

Or, bang by bang, hit by hit, one missed opportunity after another, joining the American Left in becoming the Party of Charlie Sheen.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director, an author, and a CNN commentator. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com and @Jeffjlpa1