WASHINGTON — Not too long ago there was lofty talk of doing something big. Of a reasonable path. Of a grand bargain.
That was a few weeks and a few thousand tortured metaphors ago.
The debate over raising the federal debt limit has triggered a spiral of rhetorical one-upmanship that has all sides stretching for new analogies and catchy one-liners to sway public opinion. Stretching far enough to pull a few muscles.
It was one thing when the president spoke of his desire for a "big" deal.
And quite another when press secretary Jay Carney explained that "reasonableness and bigness walk down the street hand in hand."
There's been ominous talk of driving off a cliff, collateral damage, loaded guns, hostage situations, the dark cloud of uncertainty and the fog of the Twilight Zone.
There have been catchy catchphrases like "cut, cap and balance," later derided as "duck, dodge and dismantle."
Whole genres of metaphorical warfare have sprung up, producing some hits, more misses.
"We might as well do it now," President Barack Obama admonished a few weeks back, urging Congress to buckle down to the unpleasant task of raising the debt limit. "Pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas."
It was an apt metaphor, one that tea party activists were happy to plop in a spoon and fling right back at the White House.
"Eat your own peas!" read a tea party sign at a rally on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker John Boehner made his own culinary contribution to the debate when he complained that negotiating with the White House was like "dealing with Jell-O."
The Republican National Committee liked that so much it gave the president a new title: "His Jello-Ness."
Everyone likes a good film, so it's no surprise that politicians are trying to create a little movie magic of their own.
House Democrats complained that the repetitive debt debate was starting to feel like "Groundhog Day."
Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., accused Republicans of taking the country into "The Twilight Zone."
House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy tried to rally GOP support by playing lawmakers a clip of the bank-robber film "The Town," in which Ben Affleck tells an ally: "I need your help , , , We're gonna hurt some people."
Carney countered with a cringe-worthy film analogy of his own, harking back to the 1982 movie "Sophie's Choice," in which a Jewish woman must choose which of her two children should be saved from a Nazi death camp.
The White House spokesman said failure to raise the debt limit by Tuesday's deadline would require the government to make difficult choices about which bills to pay and which ones to let slide.
"It's a Sophie's choice, right?" Carney said. "Who do you save? Who do you pay?"
It's probably only a matter of time before someone invokes the Grinch: Obama adviser David Plouffe warned Thursday that extending the debt ceiling for just a few months could create a new crisis that would "ruin Christmas."
One House Republican skipped filmography in favor of a literary allusion.
Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania described Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's actions over the past few months as "Profiles in Cowardice."
The countdown to Tuesday's expiration of government borrowing authority has challenged the White House and lawmakers to come up with creative ways to say that time is short. But yet there's still time.
The clock is ticking. It's the 11th hour. D-Day approaches. The gun is loaded. And more.
"Time is running out," Carney said for the umpteenth time this week. A few sentences later, he added: "There's plenty of time to get this done."
If that seemed to stretch the laws of science, Reid may have provided an explanation.
"Magic things can happen here in Congress in a very short period of time under the right circumstances," he said.
Politicians have been equally challenged to come up with new ways to say that the consequences of default would be serious.
Carney went with the laundry list approach this week, telling reporters, "The consequences would be severe, calamitous, catastrophic, etc."
It wouldn't be Washington if somebody didn't complain about the use of "smoke and mirrors" and somebody else didn't refuse to write a "blank check" and somebody else didn't pronounce a plan "dead on arrival." That's "business as usual."
Thank Boehner and Plouffe, among others, for checking off all of those boxes.
And no self-respecting debate can steam ahead without a train analogy.
This year, the rails are crowded.
"Several trains have left the station," Carney reported. "It's a decision about which train we'll be riding when we get to the next station."
And what will be served on the train?
Carney: "Jell-O and peas."
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