An MSNBC commentator is in the doghouse over a mildly obscene on-air criticism of President Barack Obama. Fair enough. But, to me his language was less obscene than his suggestion that Obama was getting a too uppity with GOP budget negotiators.
Mark Halperin, a Time magazine columnist who often appears on the cable news channel as an analyst, was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after he described the nation's president as a D-word that sounds like the short form of "Richard."
I don't know what "suspended indefinitely" means, but I hope they'll bring him back after a few days. No question that his remark was disrespectful. If I had said something similar on the air about, say, President George W. Bush during his time in office, Republicans would not be alone in coming after my head.
Full disclosure: I don't know Halperin personally, although I generally admire his work. (And, although I have appeared happily on MSNBC, among other networks, as a visiting pundit, I am not on MSNBC's payroll.)
But, whether I agree with Halperin's views or not, I think we need to avoid banishing him or anyone else from the airwaves forever for a minor slip -- especially after he was specifically told that he would be bleeped by censors. I'd rather risk an occasional blooper than put another chill on our robust national conversation about important issues.
Language aside, my gripe is with the substance of Halperin's remarks. He was trying to "characterize how I thought the president behaved yesterday." The president was addressing a news conference that focused mostly on crucial budget talks to lift the legal ceiling on the nation's debt obligations.
There's no way to overemphasize the urgency of these talks. If lawmakers don't lift the debt ceiling, our nation could go into default for the first time in history. International financial collapse could follow.
What's holding things up? Polarized Tea Party-era politics. Congressional Republicans are holding the economy hostage, threatening to run out the clock unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts. What about revenue increases? You know, those things that Republicans call "tax increases?" Those are off the table, say the Grand Old Party's leaders.
Obama chastised Republicans for dragging their heels. Like an upset parent, he scolded GOP leaders by bringing up his own daughters: "Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. ... They don't wait until the night before. They're not pulling all-nighters. They're 13 and 10. You know, Congress can do the same thing."
Halperin sounded offended by such admonishments. He was not alone. "Absolutely disgraceful," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "He should be ashamed."
"It's class warfare," complained Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, echoing a theme often heard whenever Democrats even hint at ending the Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income earners.
In fact, if all of the finger-wagging and showy walkouts from negotiations sound like a lot of political theater, you're right. In fact, both parties want to reach a deal. Both parties know they will look like dangerous idiots if they bring on economic Armageddon. But neither wants to reach a deal too quickly.
One reason is political. Next year's elections could change the balance of power on Capitol Hill. Each side must satisfy the anger and frustrations of its political base. The Republican base, energized by Tea Party fervor, want to see big cuts -- especially to programs they don't think directly touch them.
The Democratic base thinks Obama has given away too much already, including his agreement in his last annual budget deal to extend the Bush upper-income tax cuts in exchange for other concessions. They don't want to see him give that key issue away again in these negotiations. What looks like reasonable compromise to reasonable minds, inevitably sounds like a sell-out to each party's base.
Another big incentive for sluggish negotiations is cultural: Washington operates under Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion -- and the amount of available money, too. If there is hope for these negotiations it will show itself in the final hours, regardless of how much scolding Obama gives.
Sorry, Mr. President, but as deadline nears, you probably can expect what your daughters might call awesome all-nighters.