Dana Milbank / Politics

Dangerous Game of Sports Metaphors

WASHINGTON -- It's fourth and long in America's fight to avoid default, but our leaders still can't agree on the field conditions.

"The White House moved the goal post," House Speaker John Boehner protested Friday night.

"There was no change at the goalpost," White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley responded, via "Meet the Press" Sunday morning.

Yet Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, is on record saying the uprights were indeed moved -- by the Republicans. "It is like trying to kick a field goal and the whole goalpost keeps moving," he said earlier in the budget fights.

It's time to throw a flag and penalize both sides for unnecessary sportsmanship: specifically, turning the debt-limit impasse into an extended athletics metaphor.

A week ago, President Obama said "we're in the same playing field," but by Monday night he was accusing Republicans of playing "a dangerous game that we've never played before." A confused Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, went from saying that both sides "need to move this ball down the field" to asserting that "the ball is in their court." Boehner countered that "the ball continues to be in the president's court."

On the Senate floor, lawmakers found debt-limit precedents in fox-hunting and gladiator fights. Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the leader of a large bloc of House conservatives, explained his support for a plan that had no chance of passage: "Every Friday night, when they get ready to play the game, there's always one team that's favored," but "they still play the game, and sometimes the underdog wins."

There's only one problem with the governing-as-football idea: This isn't a game. If you lose the full faith and credit of the United States, you don't shake hands at midfield and meet for a rematch later in the season.

The trivialization of the debt dispute by our elected sports buffs points to a larger problem with our politics: that lawmakers have abandoned governing as they pursue a perpetual contest to gain seats in the next election. Policymaking has become just another means of campaigning, as partisans on the sidelines chant slogans and hector the opposing team and leaders keep track of wins and losses -- not for the American public, but in their own game of gaining and holding majorities.

A revealing example came late last week when word broke of a possible deal between Obama and Boehner. As The Washington Post's Paul Kane reported, Senate Democrats protested to Obama's budget director that the president was squandering their advantage: "The Democrats were winning, the senators said." Never mind that without a deal, millions could lose their jobs or their homes.

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