Within hours after President Obama and Congressional Democratic leaders finally pushed through a debt-ceiling agreement with the Republicans, they were disowning their own deal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voted for the bill but refused to “whip” the restive progressives in her caucus to do so. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid remarked that voters would be “unimpressed” to learn that working families had again been sacrificed to protect the wealthy. As for the president, he attacked the unfairness of the bill and the irresponsible process that produced it, while waiting to affix his signature to the thing. Then they all started talking “jobs,” suddenly restored to the top of the Washington agenda. But worried as Americans are about jobs and the economy, what may trouble them even more is the political schizophrenia that seems to afflict the Democrats.
Consider Obama’s own statements about the debt-ceiling bill in the moment of its passage: At first, he boasts that this legislation will reduce federal discretionary spending to the lowest level since the Eisenhower presidency, more than six decades ago; virtually in the next breath, he warns that the economic recovery is stalled — and declares that somehow we must help the unemployed father and the single mother whose hours have been cut back. The bill he signed will ensure that more dads are laid off, especially in the public sector, and that more moms see their wages reduced — as he certainly knows.
The president’s supporters might reply that he salvaged as much as he could from opponents who appear willing, perhaps eager, to sink the national economy, ruin American prestige, and set us on a permanent path toward decline. In the end his deal left the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in place, created a budgetary “trigger” mechanism that only cuts Medicare providers and requires large cuts in the defense budget, and kept revenue on the bargaining table in Congress (despite Republican claims to the contrary). He forced them to drop the ludicrous requirement that the Senate pass a “balanced budget amendment,” the primary objective of the Tea Party. More immediately, he seems to have prevented a downgrade in America’s credit rating, at least temporarily, while precluding a similarly destructive episode in 2012.
All that will not be enough to save Obama and the Democrats from the damaging traps they have laid for themselves next year. Unless the special new joint Congressional committee reaches agreement on well over a trillion dollars in budget reductions, an equivalent amount will automatically be cut from future budgets, divided roughly between national security and domestic discretionary spending. The defense cuts will be large enough, or so some observers believe, to encourage the Republicans to consider increasing revenues in this next phase of the negotiations. Unfortunately, there is no reason to depend on that kind of reasoned judgment from the GOP any more. House Speaker John Boehner has vowed that all the Republicans on the “SuperCongress” committee will be committed in advance to zero increases in revenue. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks the brinksmanship of the past month, which drove markets down, endangered our credit rating and probably damaged the economy, was a great success. He plans to do it all again! Meanwhile Rush Limbaugh is berating Boehner and McConnell for making any deal at all, when “we could have hung [default] on Obama.”
This malevolent obstructionism is what passes for patriotic in the Republican Party today. Wrecking American prestige and power is to be encouraged, so long as the president and his party can be falsely blamed. Obama would be repeating a fatal mistake if he expects the Republican leaders to negotiate in good faith and avoid the triggered cuts next year. He ought to know by now that they care more about protecting wealthy taxpayers than they do about the military — and that they won’t care at all about the damaging economic impact of enormous, abrupt spending cuts. The Democratic leadership will care — which is why Republican intransigence could force them to capitulate again and again.
So at some point soon, the Democrats – and especially the president — will have to start playing harder and smarter or consign themselves to political impotence. They ought to be thinking about their own progressive version of a “balanced budget amendment.” They ought to be talking loudly about the right ways to save Medicare and Social Security, including gradual changes in taxes, benefits, and investments. They ought to be targeting the fattest tax breaks enjoyed by the oil industry, while promoting higher employment through energy conservation. Most of all, they must begin to make the case for ending the Bush tax cuts, especially for those earning more than $250,000 a year — because every poll indicates that is an argument they can win. And they need do nothing — which they should be able to manage — except let that profligate legislation expire on schedule.