The Spectacle Blog

Boehner Clarifies “Knuckle-dragger” Remark

By on 8.15.12 | 2:10PM

The folks at Red State and other conservatives were justly angry at the apparent insult to conservatives contained in an interview given by House Speaker John Boehner. I now have clarification on the remark.

First, here's what Boehner said, when talking about Paul Ryan: 

BOEHNER: I mean, I think that he's a practical conservative. He's got a very conservative voting record, but he's not a knuckle-dragger, all right? He understood that TARP, while none of us wanted to do it, if we were going to save -- save our economy, save the world economy, it had to happen. I wish we didn't have to do it, either, but he understood that.

Now, I can report this direct quote from Dave Schnittger, the Speaker's Deputy Chief of Staff:

“The Speaker said Paul Ryan is a practical conservative, and that Paul Ryan is not a knuckledragger.  He did not say those who opposed TARP are knuckledraggers, and he does not believe TARP opponents are knuckledraggers.  He did not say tea partiers are knuckledraggers, and he does not believe tea partiers are knuckledraggers.  To the contrary, he has enormous respect for the tea party movement, which reflects the will of the American people and their desire for a government that respects our Constitution.  Whether you supported or opposed TARP, we all can agree the crony capitalist philosophy of forcing responsible taxpayers to subsidize irresponsible behavior – perpetuated and perfected under President Obama – has wrecked our economy, and has to end.”

If you watch the interview, and listen to the intonation and the pacing of the remarks, I think it IS believable that Boehner was separating the "not a knuckle-dragger" part from the TARP part. I think it is fair to give Boehner the benefit of the doubt that he was not intending to suggest that only knuckle-draggers opposed TARP.

That said, I still take issue -- not insult, but substantive issue -- with what Boehner actually did say about TARP. TARP did not "have to happen." It was not necessary to "save our economy save the world economy." 

Now, that's just pure economics. I will think to my dying day that the "crisis," in pure economic terms, was overblown, and that the situation could therefore have been ameliorated through other means far less abusive to our economic and political systems.

That said, it might be arguable that Messrs. Geithner, Paulson, Bush, McCain, Reid, Obama and others had so loudly hit the panic button that failure to pass TARP would have indeed caused a cataclysmic panic and a resulting, absolute meltdown of the international economy. In short, Paulson and Geithner especially had created a situation almost sure to be a self-fulfilling prophecy if they didn't get their way.

I myself disagree with that. I think that the right leadership from other sources could have lessened the panic, and that the crisis could still have been averted without the unwise and still arguably unconstitutional TARP. But I must admit that that argument is a much, much closer call, and that those on the Boehner/Ryan side of it have many legitimate arguments on their side. I also recognize that Paul was part of the negotiating team on TARP, and that there were several important improvements from the original TARP proposal that resulted directly from Ryan's involvement -- and, while ideologues refuse to recognize this fact, it is a well-understood and very reasonable convention on Capitol Hill that in crucial negotiations, he who gets his way on important substantive changes is expected in return to support the final product. This is, practically speaking, especially true if the final product looks almost certain to pass anyway, so the only result of obstinacy would be to lose the improvements that the negotiator did achieve. (If other negotiators didn't really want the changes, they could jettison said changes at a moment's notice.) In short, this is all about "negotiating in good faith," and it is a very important tradition in order for the whole system to work. For that reason, as I was fiercely opposing TARP, even as I did I immediately excused Ryan's vote for it, because I understood how all this works.

In sum..... In sum, I think Boehner was wrong here on substance, but not outrageously so, speaking in terms of how the practical politics (and state of panic) actually were playing at the time. And I think he made a big faux-pas in talking about TARP immediately after talking about knuckle-draggers, giving the impression that he was conflating the two. But I do not think he really meant, or believes, that those who opposed TARP are knuckle-draggers. And I credit his staff for so quickly moving to correct the misimpression -- I think quite sincerely so.

Boehner should be a bit more careful, but almost everybody, every day, says something that comes out a little wrong. On this contretemps, let's cut the Speaker some slack.

Conservatives should move on. 

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