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A Metaphor Meltdown At The White House

Thursday's White House briefing came just after House Republicans offered to raise the debt ceiling for six weeks, without reopening the government.

"I expect I know at least some of the questions you'll ask," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

Thus began an epic battle of metaphor, evasion and obfuscation. And I got sucked into it.

Everyone in the room wanted to know two things: 1) Will the president sign a "clean," six-week debt limit increase? 2) Will he then negotiate with Republicans over the budget, even if the government is still shut down?

On the first question about the debt limit, Carney was relatively clear, if verbose:

"It would be far better for the economy if we stop this episodic brinksmanship and mothball the nuclear weapon, a threat of default, for a longer duration. But it's certainly at least an encouraging sign that based on today's statement by the speaker they're not listening to the debt limit and default deniers, who seem to suggest against all the accumulated wisdom of financial experts that it'd be OK for the U.S. to enter territory it's never entered before, and default for the first time in our history."

In other words, yes.

Obama would very likely sign a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling for six weeks. Except Carney then added a question of his own:

"If there's a recognition we can't default, why is there this insistence that you [meaning Republicans] keep the nuclear weapon in your back pocket to threaten default in the near term?"

On negotiations, Carney was a bit mushier.

"Can I ask a very straightforward question?" asked ABC's Jonathan Karl. "Is the president willing to engage in budget negotiations with Republicans if the government is still shut down?"

Carney explained that Obama will have "conversations" but won't pay a "ransom."

"If the Republicans think, or the Tea Party that is driving Republican decision-making thinks, that they can extract concessions by punishing the American people, by punishing the American economy to get what they want, the answer is no. The president is meeting with House Republicans today, so the idea that this is about having a conversation, well, they're having a conversation today."

Of course, one man's negotiation is another man's conversation is another man's ransom.

After Carney spoke for a few more minutes, Karl dryly noted, "That was a very long answer to a yes or no question."

"Our position is clear," Carney replied, though it was clearly not.

"I think we ought to see whether they're serious about putting the matches and the gasoline aside," he said.

At that point, the convoluted nonanswers had gotten to be too much.

Typically the White House briefing room is a reserved place, where people wait their turn to speak. It was not my turn to speak.

But I couldn't help it.

"You see it as a ransom, but it's a metaphor that doesn't serve our purposes," I protested to Carney. "We're trying to be accurate in our description of what's going on."

Finally, I tried to sum up what we'd learned so far.

"You said we need to see whether they're serious about putting the matches and gasoline aside. You've also said they want to keep a nuclear weapon in their back pocket. So, is keeping the nuclear weapon in the back pocket the same as putting the matches and gasoline aside? Or, even better, can we stop talking matches and gasoline and nuclear weapons and start talking about what's actually happening?"

Carney's response was not much clearer.

But an hour later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a White House meeting with the president and was asked whether he would negotiate with Republicans over the budget if the government were still partially shut down.

"Not gonna happen," said Reid.

Three simple words. Now that wasn't so hard, was it?

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