CODY, Wyo.--Alan Simpson has spent the better part of two years flying around the country ticking people off, though that's putting it more politely than the former Wyoming senator does.
Simpson is the Republican half of the Simpson-Bowles duo (Erskine being the Democrat) that produced a 2010 deficit reduction plan that gored just about every sacred cow in Washington before succumbing to a scarcely lamented death.
He continues to campaign around the country for the controversial recipe of tax hikes, spending cuts and entitlement reforms. This week, however, found Simpson home in Cody for a rare extended visit, and among his errands was a stop by the local Chamber of Commerce to drop off a personal check for $5,000.
The chamber recently took up a collection to plow the roads in Yellowstone Park, a mainstay of the local economy, after a delay caused by the budget-cutting sequester. There was no fanfare to Simpson's appearance. A reporter happened to be around, so he sat down to chat.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," is how he characterized the indiscriminate across-the-board cuts, and it was soon clear that that sentiment extended to the White House, Congress, the Republican Party and, overall, the way government functions.
"This is madness," he said, offering the sort of how-a-bill-becomes-law tutorial you're not likely to find in any textbook. "It's all done with emotion, fear, guilt or racism."
During three terms in the United States Senate, Simpson was famous for his provocations and blunt talk. If anything, his 1997 departure from office has made him even more outspoken.
Start with President Obama. He will be an utter failure no matter what else he accomplishes, Simpson said, if he can't rein in the country's soaring costs for Medicare and other entitlement programs.
Simpson and Bowles plan to release their version of a federal budget at the end of April, following Obama's draft and partisan versions passed by House Republicans and Senate Democrats. Simpson's eyes narrowed with delight as he anticipated the response: "They'll say, 'Gaaah! Those bastards have done it again!' "
He directed some of his most lacerating criticism at his Republican Party, which is currently in the throes of painful self-examination. Simpson noted with satisfaction a recent party-commissioned report that described the GOP as an off-putting collection of grumpy old white men. The 81-year-old Simpson is old, white and quite grumpy himself, but most similarities end there.
The party needs to get behind immigration reform, said the former lawmaker, who co-wrote the 1986 legislation that marks the last comprehensive effort to address the issue. Critics call it a disaster, saying it provided amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, but Simpson said the real problem was the failure to create a form of national identification to boost enforcement of the country's borders.
He said the GOP needed to get over its hangup on gay rights--"What is this homophobic strain in our party?"--and stop, once and for all, talking about abortion and kowtowing to the religious right.
"You're a Republican, you believe in get-out-of-your-life and the precious right to privacy, the right to be left alone," Simpson said. "Well then, pal, I don't care what you do. You can go worship the Great Eel at night, I don't give a rat's ... . But don't mess with me and don't then go take a position I have and wrap religion around it."
Abortion, he said, "is a hideous thing. It's terrible.... But it's a deeply intimate and personal thing.... Men legislators shouldn't even vote on it."
He reserved his greatest contempt for the tea party-inspired Republicans who equate compromise with capitulation and view obstruction as progress. "Some of them," he said, "are as rigid as a fireplace poker, but without the occasional warmth."
He leaned forward, stabbing a bony finger into a wood conference table. "Let me tell you something, pal: If you are a legislator and you can't learn to compromise an issue without compromising yourself, get out of the business. In fact, don't ever get married, either. You don't want any part of that."
Compromise is the only way anything has ever gotten done, he went on, going back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both of which amounted to more give than take. "They don't like that," he said of the tea partyers’ unwillingness to bargain. "They get nasty. They smell bad. They've got b.o. and heartburn and gas. They're seethers."
He glanced at his watch, unfolded his long, jackknifed body from a chair and stood up. Doubtless Simpson's remarks would antagonize a significant number of people all over again. So what?
"I don't know how to get any clearer, but I know what bull-- is," he said. "I get the nastiest stuff you can ever imagine in my emails, so you can't add anything to it."
Then Simpson grabbed his hat, threw on a leather jacket with a Buffalo Bill museum insignia and headed out into the warm, sunny afternoon, his errand completed.