Will Washington have a "serious" budget debate?

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement about limited military action against Libya

This post originally appeared on Slate.

It's hard to take anyone seriously in politics these days. It's not that the politicians have gotten sillier--though an outbreak is always possible; it's that they talk about being serious so much, the word has lost all meaning.

Washington is obsessed with measuring seriousness. President Obama's televised discussion of his NCAA bracket proved he isn't a serious leader. House conservatives said GOP leaders weren't serious enough about cutting the deficit. Senate Republicans leveled that charge against their Democratic counterparts.

This call for seriousness is often itself not a serious charge. What most of the criticisms actually mean is "My opponent doesn't believe something I'd like him to." The outbreak of such talk comes at just the moment that more precise language would be helpful. The debate over short- and long-term budget deficits is about priorities. You can't start that debate, or work through it effectively, if the words used to convey the relative importance of things are all gummed up.

Since Washington is dominated by politics, which is frivolous, the call to "get serious" is practically a tradition. "Getting Serious About [Insert Issue Here]" is the implicit subtitle of every think-tank paper and symposium. Politicians regularly overinflate the seriousness of things. In Washington everyone is talking, so the only way you can get people to listen is if you frighten them.

When things are really serious, no one has to talk about it. After 9/11, there were no calls to put away the party hats. The debate over the budget, by contrast, has been dominated by talk about the need for serious talk, as opposed to much serious talk itself.

The president is accused of not being serious about the budget deficit from both the left and the right. Much of it is a critique of his public posture. His aides are working behind the scenes, but both Democrats and Republicans in Congress would prefer that Obama take a public role. Serious members of Congress have the power to proceed on their own but they would like Obama to share some of the political risk of presenting voters with the inevitable hard choices. Some 64 senators from both parties--enough to end a filibuster and almost enough to override a veto, both of which actions would qualify as serious--recently sent the president a letter asking him to support and offer leadership on the deficit and debt. The letter immediately won praise from think tanks. Now all it needs is an editorial endorsement and it will have achieved a trifecta of seriousness.

Meanwhile, Tea Party conservatives in Congress claimed the seriousness mantle this week when 54 of them bucked their leadership by voting against a three-week measure to continue funding the government because it didn't cut enough. The size of spending cuts has become the ultimate sign of seriousness among some conservatives.

But just as lack of public action tells you nothing about how serious a politician is, neither do flamboyant displays or claims of seriousness. As House leaders tried to explain to their rank-and-file, unrealistic demands about spending reductions will lead to a government shutdown, which will imperil future efforts to achieve any of the bigger reductions they want.

All of this discussion about seriousness, of course, prompts the question of what being serious means in Washington. This I am not qualified to answer. But for the purposes of the debate about the budget, I suggest that the test of seriousness is whether you are fixated on the health care costs that are driving the long-term deficit. That's the test that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan uses. He worries that the focus of Tea Party activists and many House freshmen on immediate spending reductions obscures that test. "They literally think you can just balance" the budget by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse, foreign, aid and NPR," he said in an interview last week with the Associated Press. "And it doesn't work like that."

Ryan is about to take a huge gamble on seriousness. GOP leaders have claimed since the election that the American public put their party in power because people were serious about reducing the budget deficit. Ryan has said his coming budget will include an effort to reform entitlements. That has been considered dangerous in the past because while voters have said they want to reduce the deficit, they don't actually want to see reductions in entitlements. Nearly every poll taken in the last several months confirms this. Never mind, says Congressman Tom Graves of Georgia, a new Republican member. ""We have to be emotionless about the various cuts that are out there," he told me. "We cannot be married to one program or another. Instead, we have to step back and know that this is for the great good of America." That might sound a little chilly to all but the most serious voters.

House Republicans aren't the only ones gambling that the public is serious. Seriousness is also a fixation on the campaign trail. In discussions with advisers or supporters of three prominent campaigns, each has invoked the seriousness of the American people in exactly the same way. Newt Gingrich will be able to overcome his corrugated marital history because voters are so somber. Republican voters will overlook the similarities between the health care plan Mitt Romney promoted as Massachusetts governor and the one Obama pushed because they are so serious about the economy, an issue on which Romney claims special expertise. Haley Barbour may be a former lobbyist with a thick Southern accent, but voters won't care because, as an influential Republican lawmaker explained to me recently, "voters are in a serious mood."

They may well be. But when politicians invoke seriousness like this, they are using it as a diversion. When a candidate has no easy way to overcome an obstacle to his campaign, he will seek to diminish it by pointing to something else. This is a time-honored technique, though its most notable recent use has been by Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004. Both Al Gore's and John Kerry's campaigns argued that Americans would overlook their shortcomings because they wanted a "serious" candidate. This theory also requires that people see President Obama as unserious. Cool, detached, and cerebral, maybe. But one ill-timed televised discussion of his NCAA bracket isn't likely to make voters take seriously the idea that he's not, well, serious.

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John Dickerson is a CBS News political analyst. He is also Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. You can also follow him on Twitter here.