TNR Takes on The Debt Commission and Con Dogma

by A. Jay Adler on November 12, 2010
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The other day, I wrote,

What polling on the issues – particularly economic safety-net and quality of life issues, but many others now, too – tends to support is that the U.S. is actually somewhat center-left. This is not pre-Depression America and no one but the hard core right and libertarians wishes it were. What is center-right is the nation’s cultural self-perception, borne of the national mythos. It is the reason the U.S. cannot pursue even the best of European social-democratic policies in anything like a European manner. The Right will always appeal to that mythos and self-conception to rouse resistance against policies and programs it can taint as contrary to the American way.

The challenge to the Democratic Party and to liberals is to find practical solutions, simply as the manner of doing political business in this country, to what they will most successfully understand as not a bug, but a feature.

Here is Jonathan Chait at The New Republic on the Debt Commission:

Conservatives are convinced the federal budget is filled with waste and useless bureaucrats. Yet they have a very difficult time articulating functions that the government is fulfilling that it shouldn’t be. There certainly are some — farm subsidies is one of the biggest examples. The government should get out of that business altogether.

But for the most part, the domestic discretionary budget has been squeezed for savings for several decades on end. Virtually all of the programs remaining represent important public functions. That’s why the commission is reduced to proposing charging visitors to the national zoo and implementing phony schemes to cut government staff and pay without changing any of government’s mission. If you want to treat this portion of the budget reasonably, you need to either actually agree on some functions the federal government will stop performing, or else just recognize that you need to start paying for the functions it is performing. Catering to airy conservative prejudices against government without translating that into a specific re-conception of the federal role is useless.

Dean Baker at TNR further opines:

Given the state of the economy, the co-chairs’ report reads like a document from Mars. Just to remind those of us who earn their living on planet earth (outside of Wall Street), the country is suffering from 9.6 percent unemployment. More than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether. Tens of millions of people are underwater in their mortgage and millions face the prospect of losing their home to foreclosure.

We did not get here because of government deficits, contrary to what Mr. Bowles seemed to suggest at the co-chairs’ press conference today. We got here because of the bursting of an $8 trillion housing bubble. This bubble was fueled by the reckless and possibly unlawful practices of the Wall Street banks, like Morgan Stanley, the bank on whose board Mr. Bowles sits.

This is important background—because the economy’s current problem has nothing, zero, nada to do with deficits. Its problem is a lack of demand.

What Baker’s commentary points up is the illusion, created from a confluence of two events – the Great Recession and the steadily escalating national debt and budget deficits, which are genuine matter of concern for the future – that the latter are somehow related to present concerns and possible cures for the former. President Obama’s brief contribution to the debt was not a cause of economic decline and malaise, but an effort to halt them. The Tea Parties and their sympathizers now come to congress with espoused commitments to reign in government and its spending, which, given everyone’s economic worries, again get confused with the causes of current economic conditions. So now here is Ed Kilgore at TNR, channeling Paul Waldman at The American Prospect, putting a reverse spin on the challenge for Democrats that I voiced above. Conservatives and libertarians who do not hold or run for office will always have an easy, theoretical time eliminating whole government agencies and departments and decimating government. Those who actually govern, in contrast, will always have to face a modern electorate’s true practical desires of government, whatever historical and cultural images those voters may have of themselves.

Voters Are About to be Disillusioned With the GOP

[N]ow that they control the House and aspire to gain control of the Senate and the executive branch in the next election, Republicans will be forced to work for an actual agenda. And as Paul Waldman nicely explains in The American Prospect, this can produce a great pivot in the political climate of the country, very fast:

As a long history of public-opinion research has made clear — and as events continue to remind us — Americans are “symbolic conservatives” but “operational liberals.” In other words, they like the idea of limited government, but they also like just about everything government does. Good things happen to the party that can successfully pander to both impulses, which is why we saw so many ads from Republicans…condemning Democrats for passing a big-government health-care plan because it would … curtail the growth of Medicare.

Perhaps they’re just being cautious as they get used to their new majority, but in the last week, Republicans have steadfastly refused to say what their professed desire to limit government would actually entail. Press them hard on what they want to cut, and they’ll answer “earmarks,” which would be fine were it not for the fact that a) earmarks do not appropriate new money; they merely direct money that has already been appropriated, and b) the value of all earmarks amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget….

If there’s one thing Republicans have been clear about, it’s their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even here, though, they don’t want to get too specific. As you’ve no doubt heard many times, a bare majority of the public opposes “health-care reform” (or “Obamacare”), while substantial majorities favor almost all the major provisions of the law. Once again, Republicans can win the vague, general argument but not the specific one. Faced with the impossibility of repealing the entire act (which Obama would veto), Republicans have said they’ll try to dismantle it piece by piece. Try that, however, and they’re suddenly attacking not “health-care reform” but those particular things people like.

The challenge to the Republican Party and to conservatives is to find practical solutions, simply as the manner of doing political business in this country, to Americans’ desire for government service to their lives, which Republicans will most successfully understand as not a bug, but a feature.

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