Jell-O, Rubik’s cube, peas: Debt debate’s many metaphors

The debt-limit crisis has attracted a slew of colorful metaphors, with President Obama and lawmakers citing peas, Rubik’s cubes and Jell-O to make their political arguments.

The serious debate has given way at times to over-the-top sound bites the likes of which haven’t been uttered since the 2009-10 healthcare debate.

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In contrast to that debate, the debt-limit talks started out on a pleasant tone. 

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in June played a round of golf in what American University political scientist James Thurber described as an effort to “talk and try to know each other as human beings.”

Meanwhile, Vice President Biden publicly praised House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). 

But the collegiality didn’t last, and shortly thereafter, the metaphors were flying. 

On July 11, Boehner told reporters of Obama, “I want to do what I think is the right — the best interest of the country, but it takes two to tango and they’re not there yet.” 

That same day, Obama said we should “eat our peas” in not accepting a smaller, short-term deal.

Amid this game of chicken, Boehner likened negotiating with Obama and White House officials to “dealing with Jell-O.”

Members of Congress also weighed in. On July 9, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told supporters in Iowa that it was time for some “tough love” on the issue of raising the federal debt ceiling, vowing never to vote for any increase.

Another White House hopeful, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), said, “Republicans cannot take the bait and get fooled again.”

Cantor chided reporters for seeking to write stories on the “soap opera” of an internal rift he was having with Boehner. Cantor repeatedly said he and Boehner were on the same page, but the storyline didn’t subside until Boehner publicly put his arm around his deputy. 

Religion has also played a role in the debate.

During a press conference earlier this month, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) urged citizens to take up the debt-limit issue with religious figures. 

“Why don’t you call your pastor? Your rabbi? Your imam?” Rangel said.

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) debt plan the “Pontius Pilate Pass the Buck Act of 2011.”

Members of both parties have clearly expressed exasperation. Boehner likened getting a deal to “a Rubik’s cube that we haven’t quite worked out yet.” He later said the issue was driving him up a wall.

Obama accused Boehner of leaving him “at the altar.” Twice.

Privately, Obama warned Cantor, “Don’t call my bluff.” Publicly, the president has said the potential fallout from the negotiations would be akin to “Armageddon.”

While few could forgive a broken engagement, the debt-limit stakes are simply too high to continue the breakup. And just as in most relationships, it’s not what’s said, but how it’s said that matters.

“It’s sort of the way they say the things, not the particular vocabulary, that for me has been the most interesting side of this,” Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University, told The Hill.

“Obama seems to address all of these issues with a kind of sense of wounded innocence that somehow he is the honest broker, he is a person who is trying to bring together these irreconcilable parties, and there’s kind of a sense of exasperation,” he said.

“On the other hand, John Boehner kind of sounds beleaguered,” Baker added. “He is basically like a high school teacher in a tough school who is on the verge of retirement and has a particularly unruly class that he has to manage. He has that kind of tone of being under attack and doing the best he can.”

Thurber warned politicians to watch their rhetoric. 

“It’s OK to disagree and have hard contrast arguments. But sometimes you can go too far when you add comments about personality,” he said.

Even the principals themselves have recognized they must watch their tongues.

“It’s my hope that everybody’s going to leave their ultimatums at the door, that we’ll all leave our political rhetoric at the door, and we’re all going to do what’s best for our economy and do what’s best for our people,” Obama told reporters at the White House on July 5.