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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frankel: Democrats Should not Rise to the Bait of "Fiscal Conservatives"

Jeff Frankel is unhappy with the accepted framing of the budget issue:

Democrats should not rise to the bait of “fiscal conservatives”, by Jeff Frankel: I never cease to be frustrated that the current public policy debate is described as a contest of ideas: fiscal conservatives versus liberals. It is not just Republicans or Tea Partiers who believe that they are fiscal conservatives... Democrats and liberals seem to accept this characterization at face value, as does most of the media.
The problem is that a heavy majority of the supposed fiscally conservative congressmen, although passionate about cutting government spending in the abstract, are in truth no better able to find specific dollars of budget cuts that they can support or defend to their constituents than are the Democrats. Factoring in their immutable desire to cut taxes, I believe that if the Republicans were in full control, we would have larger budget deficits in the coming years than if the Obama crowd retained power. This is what happened in a big way when Presidents Reagan and GW Bush took office promising to cut the debt while also cutting taxes. Spending, deficits, and debt soared during their terms, relative to their respective Democratic predecessors. There is no reason to think anything has changed.
The first thing the Republicans did after their congressional victories in the November election was achieve their precious extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. This extension will raise the budget deficit by more than all the domestic spending cuts that all of the Congressional freshmen have identified put together.
Next they turned to their campaign to kill Obamacare. It ... is ... surprising that the conservatives can continue to get away with simultaneously tarring the reform as “death panels” while refusing to acknowledge that it will cut costs. Their plans for going back to our previous health care system include suspending their own rule that bills that would increase spending ... must be paid for.
The zeal to cut funding for such tiny programs as the National Endowment for the Humanities and Planned Parenthood is accepted as evidence of the sincerity of the fiscal conservatives. I wish the Democrats would not fall for that bait. Their anguish over such cuts, while understandable, plays into the old narrative of big versus small government. ... The Right reacts to such liberal anguish with glee, while the Center infers ... that such cuts are part of a painful but necessary fiscal adjustment. Losing the center is no way to put together a political majority.
Yes, fiscal adjustment is necessary. I might even think that such cuts would be a price worth paying, if they were a proportionate component of a comprehensive plan to address the long-run fiscal situation. But they are nothing remotely like that. Rep. Paul Ryan’s supposedly tough long-term plan to cut spending doesn’t balance the budget until 50 years from now and runs up another $62 trillion in national debt in the meantime... Moreover..., the cuts that the House passed last week are not going to take effect anyway: the Senate and the presidential veto render them all but irrelevant. As usual, it is all about perceptions. I don’t think the perception should be that Democrats stand in the way of fiscal responsibility. So I would prefer to divert the narrative from the unenlightening and sterile debate of small versus big government, to the realities of arithmetic and history.

The White House has also played into this by proposing measures such as a government discretionary spending freeze that do little to change the long-run problem. These cuts give the impression that cutting the fat out of the budget is all it will take to bring it into balance when the problem is much larger than that and due mainly to expected health care cost increases. It also gives the impression that these measures are in response to pressure from Republicans further advancing the myth discussed above. The White House has not framed the budget debate in a way that takes control of the debate and points to the true problem. Instead, it has allowed the myth to persist that the problem is Democrats standing in the way of thrifty Republicans. Republicans aren't thrifty for the most part, they are ideological and this is a chance to pursue ideological goals of smaller government through a reduction in social programs. They do not intend to allow the budget deficit brought about by the crisis to go to waste -- this is a golden opportunity to eliminate or reduce programs they've wanted to get rid of for years. The White House needs to stop playing into this, and instead show leadership that reframes the problem in term that do not endanger programs that have little to do with our long-run problem. Unfortunately, instead of trying to change public opinion through leadership, opinion shaped by years of misleading rhetoric from the other side, they are taking perceptions of the budget problem as given and shaping their policies accordingly. That may win the next presidential election, but it's far from the best way to proceed.

    Posted by on Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 10:35 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Politics, Social Insurance | Permalink  Comments (16)


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