Washington has zeroes in with laser-like focus on the most pressing issue of our day–the unacceptable level of unemployment. No, wait! Just kidding. It’s cutting the size of government, which of course, matters more than anything else to the millions of Americans who can’t find work, who have lost or are in are in danger of losing their homes, who can’t afford health insurance, who are increasingly desperate as this recession lingers on and on. As the day this country must raise debt ceiling or default on its obligations approaches, the president and the leaders of both parties are working day and night to hammer out an agreement cutting the deficit mostly by shredding the safety net; the only question is by how much and whether the rich will be asked to shoulder any of the burden, or whether it will fall entirely on the neediest and most vulnerable among us. Whatever happened to jobs being the most important thing on the agenda? Come back later. Preferably after the next election. Can’t you see we’re busy?
The economy continues to lurch along, gaining a little bit of steam, then falling back again. Unemployment stays stubbornly around 9%, homes are still being foreclosed at a ferocious rate, and the housing industry remains in a deep funk, Meanwhile, official Washington is consumed with the debate over the debt ceiling. Will someone please explain to me how cutting long-term spending (something I agree we need to do sometime soon) is going to jump-start the economy so that it can create the jobs needed to pull us out of this trough? Several of the conservative friends I’ve asked this question insist that solving the deficit now will give businesses the market certainty they need to start hiring again. Even if they’re right, his seems like awfully week tea, given the depth of the problem. These are the same folks who recite the mantra that cutting taxes always produces economic growth and reduce the deficit (See effect of Bush tax cuts). They are, of course, also the people who claim that the stimulus did nothing at all (See auto sales, GM. See also, state budget cuts after the stimulus money was exhausted). If anyone can tell me when an austerity budget ever pulled us out of a recession, I’d be willing to listen. I can’t think of one. I do know that the rush to cut the deficit during the Great Depression helped lengthen it by a decade.
What annoys me the most in all of this is that Democrats lack the courage to lay out an ambitious plan for jobs and economic growth based on the principles that they know work. Instead, they negotiate with deficit hawks and tax-cut absolutists whose ideas have been repudiated again and again by history, but who cling to the same tired theories no matter the evidence. As a result, Congress and the president play Russian roulette with the debt ceiling at a time when we should be focused on creating jobs, and the Great Recession lingers on and on.
The post-2010 Obama style is emerging. Out is the optimistic liberal standard bearer. In is the Clintonian triangler. Let the Republicans frame the agenda, stay above the fray, expend as little political capital as possible, then step in as the mediator to forge a last-minute consensus. Hey, it worked brilliantly for Clinton, and it might just get Obama reelected.
Clinton had the benefit of a booming economy and didn’t have to give up much. As we saw from the last two of Obama’s “successes,” the price was giving up on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and this time around, surrendering a significant portion of environmental protection, family planning, renewable energy funding, community health care, and other essential services.
Now Obama wants to enter discussions about the long-term deficit. House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan has already put his much-ballyhooed plan forward, and it’s a disaster. It cuts trillions from the Medicare and Medicaid budgets while staying “revenue neutral.” Translation, big cuts for those who rely on those programs for their health care in the coming decades, the promises made to retirees and the poor broken in the name of fiscal responsibility, and more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If Obama plays the game of meeting this plan halfway, of surrendering a little less than Ryan envisions in order to get a deal, we will all be the losers. The safety net will be irretrievably shredded, and the ruinous trend toward even greater income inequality will be accelerated even further, with the wealthy taking even more, the middle class losing more ground, and the poor totally forgotten.
Does Obama have any plan for resetting the agenda more in line with the progressive core values he articulated in his campaign for the presidency, or will his recent pragmatism, at a cost too high to contemplate, win out in the end? I’m afraid to look.
We may yet get a budget deal without a government shutdown, but it won’t be any credit to the Tea Party absolutists who see ANY compromise as a betrayal of their core principles. It will be because feckless Democrats caved on theirs. The last I heard, the Dems were so desperate for a deal they were considering selling out the EPA. They’ve already given way too much on so-called discretionary spending. The cuts will be painful to the poor, to schools, to women, to the unemployed, but not, of course, to the wealthy or to big corporations, who will not be asked to sacrifice in any way. Right now, a handful of Tea Party freshmen appear to be driving the entire GOP agenda, which must be driving Speaker Boehner nuts. He’s been around long enough to understand that compromise is how things get done, and that the Tea Party radicals will destroy his party’s advantage in short order if they insist on getting their way at all costs. I only hope the Democrats don’t bail him out by caving even more.
I’m betting nobody yells “You Lie!” at the president tomorrow night. Civility is the word of the day, at least for a little while. Obama, bowing to the new reality of a divided Congress and a weakened Democratic Party, will present a centrist address, and both parties will make a show of togetherness for the cameras. That will all change tomorrow, but for one evening, it will be a pleasant time out from the toxic climate of the last two years.
I probably shouldn’t draw cartoons I dream up in the middle of the night. I tried for days to come up with a New Year cartoon, without success. Last night at 3 am, this came to me. I’m not entirely sure it works, but deadlines do have a way of making cartoon ideas look better the closer they get. I just like the image of the GOP elephant wielding the scythe as Father Time departs the scene.
The emboldened Republicans come into 2011 with an agenda to undo most of Obama’s accomplishments. Right behind Obamacare on the hit list is the Dadd-Frank financial reform package. It’s not nearly as strong or comprehensive as I’d have liked, but it’s more than the GOP and its Wall Street puppetmasters want. In the fantasy world of the Republican party, government is the only reason anything ever goes wrong, and the private sector, if the busybodies in Washington would just leave it the heck alone, will solve all problems. So the economic meltdown had nothing whatever to do with greed on Wall Street or banks creating trillions of dollars in complex derivatives backed by pixie dust, and we don’t need anyone looking over their shoulders to make sure they don’t do it again.
Now that they’ve preserved the tax cuts for the rich, the rest of us will need to pay for it somehow, which means “fixing” Social Security–a euphemism for cutting benefits. The next time you hear the term “redistribution of wealth,” think about the social safety net being plundered for the benefit of the wealthiest citizens.
We now have two commissions recommending ways to trim the deficit. The one the president appointed made its preferred approach known last week, and now an independent commission has come up with an even stronger approach. Given the current state of affairs in washington, both approaches are dead on arrival. The GOP will have nothing whatever to do with anything that even remotely appears to be a tax increase. Democrats are incensed at the idea of laying a finger on entitlements. The Tea Partiers, even farther removed from reality than the mainstream of either party, have a laser focus on earmarks, which make up less than one-half of one percent of the budget. Those of us not inside the beltway appear to understand that we will need both to reduce spending and to increase taxes, and that there will be some pain for everyone if we are to get serious about getting the deficit under control. So, of course, we keep electing people who will do neither. The turkey is safe for another year.