Leave it to the wise former first lady to have coined a perfect judgment of the contemporary group of well-intentioned U.S. senators known as the "Gang of Six."
It's true that the constitutional framers intended the Senate to be "the saucer that cools the tea" of the House of Representatives. But we live in strange times. We've witnessed a president put forth a nearly $1 trillion "stimulus package" that didn't work. We've seen a coalition of Republicans and Democrats make another pass at righting the world's economic ship by passing a TARP plan that ultimately benefited only banks and automakers.
Given those giant missteps, it's sheer lunacy for federal lawmakers -- certainly for Republican ones -- to try again to save the economy by doing anything less than face up to the fact that Congress must spend less money, rather than looking for new sources of revenue.
What planet is the Gang of Six living on? The very next day following their spending and taxing proposal, the House Budget Committee suggested that the Senate proposal would raise as much as $2 trillion more in government revenue.
It's hard to imagine that the Republican members of the Gang are in touch with the sentiments of their own party. Maybe they are just scared, and they're reacting by trying to be the grand strategists who rescue both their own party and the nation by saving them from "ultra right-wingers" who just don't understand the nuances of forcing President Obama to the brink of a budget-ceiling crisis. Maybe they are swallowing the many polls and media commentaries that make it look as though they will not only suffer politically but destroy the economy if they don't meet Obama in the middle.
Buy me a theater ticket next to Barbara Bush. I, too, have seen this before. Beyond that, I've also kept my eye on a more important polling number than those that come from all those cleverly worded surveys -- the ones that suggest the public is panicking over the failure to reach compromise, and that they will blame the Republicans for a failure to do so.
The polling I noticed was that which showed the president's overall approval rating dropping, even as he spent several days complaining about the GOP's unwillingness to compromise, and even as many in media warned of dire political consequences for Republicans if they didn't say "uncle."
How could that be? After all, we're being told the Republicans are committing political suicide with their ideological stubbornness.
Nonsense. I've seen two historical instances in which Republican leaders chose diametrically different strategic paths to deal with supposed impending doom. In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush, under pressure from Democrats, the media and even some Republicans, "moved his lips" and agreed to a tax increase.
Then there's Newt Gingrich. Today, his campaign for president looks to have been sabotaged not only by a potential rival, but also by himself. But back in 1995 and early 1996, House Speaker Gingrich refused to budge on federal budget negotiations. This forced the government to shut down for a few days. It also forced President Bill Clinton to take a whole new approach to budgeting. And that led to balanced budgets. Sometimes an entrenched determination to face reality serves better than a last-minute patchwork solution.
I applaud the Gang of Six for their efforts to eliminate the burdensome Alternative Minimum Tax, and to reduce the overall number of tax breaks. But there is too much kabuki theater in their proposal. There's also some potential real damage. Their proposal might eliminate home mortgage deductions, right in the midst of a lingering housing crisis. Their plan is simply a nonstarter.
It's easy to cast new House members as beginners who are wedded to simplistic rhetoric. That's the oldest trick in book in Washington. But Americans who voted these House freshmen into office did so largely because of these same ideas. Most Republican voters, and many independents who voted for Republicans in 2010, expect the GOP to extend the debt ceiling only if that is accompanied by cuts in spending, and without any hocus-pocus that leads to more federal revenue. It's just that simple.
My best advice to the three Republicans among the Gang of Six is to join the gang of over 200 House members that voted for a proposal that would limit spending and require a balanced budget.
Senators may look upon that proposal as simplistic and beneath the dignity of their chamber. But these leaders may be about to find out that dignity plus a dollar may get them a cup of coffee -- just not any useful legislation, and not re-election.