"At some point, the government's going to run out of money," President Barack Obama said last week at University at Buffalo.
But here's the thing: It won't. And that's the problem.
The federal government never runs out of money; it just prints more, or digitally invents it (see "quantitative easing".) But every negative dollar added to the ledger is real, and the taxpayers and their progeny own them, 16.7 trillion greenbacks and counting.
Welcome to autumn 2013.
September marks the return of the great debt debate in America, or, as we like to call it here in the Northeast, Tea Party Vilification Season. Those backwater debt loons are really going to catch it at Manhattan and Hampton soirees this fall: "Ugh, Stephen, these people are just insane . . . 'nother Sapphire and tonic, please." In political campaigns we're going to call one another tea partiers as though it's some new strain of cooties.
The impetus, of course, will be the debt ceiling fight now revving up in Washington, with the "reasonable" members of Congress arguing for a seamless, automatic debt limit extension in October -- something akin to the express E-ZPass lane -- and the "extremists" seeking to use the debt ceiling to wring spending concessions out of a White House that says it will not be held hostage. That White House, incidentally, has overseen a debt increase of around $7 trillion in four and half years -- it took between 1790 and 2004 to borrow the first $7 trillion.
It's hard to believe that the tea party movement has only been around since 2009, when CNBC's Rick Santelli famously called for a rally while on set at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. In those early days of the movement, tens of millions of Americans identified with it. But then the well-oiled political hit squads took aim, and what was a citizen uprising against gross overspending by the established political class -- of both parties -- got groundlessly morphed by its enemies into a modern day Ku Klux Klan that scared the bejeezus out of polite society, and continues to do so.
Jesse Jackson knows about that. He just called the tea party "the resurrection of the Confederacy."
Two years ago, Morgan Freeman called it, "a racist thing" that "shows the weak, dark, underside of America," which is a lot nicer than what New York Times diva Maureen Dowd said of the debt crowd: They are "like vampires, draining the country's reputation, credit rating and compassion."
The actor Sean Penn was blunter, true to form, calling tea partiers the "get the N-word out of the White House party. There's a big bubble coming out of their heads saying, you know, 'Can we just lynch him?'"
These drumbeat attacks took a toll on the populist movement. The tea partyer is now synonymous with the redneck, the sole person in America that everyone is allowed to show prejudice toward. Check the Urban Dictionary: "Tea Party: A political group of noisy ignorant rednecks."
I'm as guilty as anyone of distancing myself from the tea partiers. The term itself has become poison in campaigns, thanks to, among others, the people quoted above. But it's important to remember what got this groundswell together in the first place -- a genuine alarm that America is going bust and a feeling of hopelessness that no one in charge is doing anything about it. There's a pretty good argument there.
In October, America will blow through another debt ceiling like a runaway locomotive. And we're calling the people who want to make it an issue "extreme"?
Kinda makes you wonder who the crazy ones are.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.