Monday, August 23, 2010

What Steve, Booman, and Kthug said ...

In early July, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) delivered the weekly Republican address in the midst of some discouraging economic news. It was delivered just one day after the worst monthly jobs report since October, and amid disappointing data on construction spending and manufacturing activity. Chambliss highlighted the Republican Party's top priority: deficit reduction. The far-right senator literally didn't mention unemployment or economic growth at all.

Yesterday's GOP weekly address came under similar circumstances, coming just two days after initial claims for unemployment insurance climbed to 500,000 -- the highest since November -- and amid new concerns of an economic slowdown. And what economic message do Republicans want to emphasize?

...Representative Charles Djou, Republican of Hawaii, took Democrats to task for ignoring the minority's pleas and proposals to reduce the federal deficit. Mr. Djou called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to consider the Republicans' plan to use unspent stimulus money to close the spending gap and to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

"If we keep spending too much, borrowing too much, and taxing too much - if we keep doing the same things, we're going to get the same dismal results. It's time to change direction," he said.

Right, change direction back to the exact same failed policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

The entire GOP address was devoted, not to job creation -- voters' top priority -- but to deficit reduction. "No price tag has been too high for Washington, and now we're all paying the price. Altogether, we now owe more than $43,000 for each man, woman and child in the United States. That is a frightening number."

No, an unemployment rate pushing 10% is a frightening number.

I suppose I should know better, but Republicans' misguided priorities are simply mind-numbing. Worrying about deficit reduction right now -- indeed, prioritizing it above all else -- is nothing short of crazy. Republicans want to scrap economic recovery efforts, which is insane, and want to extend Bush-era tax policies, which failed miserably and helped create the massive deficit Djou claims to be worried about.

Indeed, the context would be amusing if it weren't so transparently pathetic -- in the official GOP weekly address, the entire message was about deficit reduction, followed by an appeal for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts that Republicans have no intention of paying for.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) added on Fox News, "The bills are being passed on to our kids tomorrow, and it's a calamity."

No, a jobs crisis and an economic slowdown right now would be a calamity. And if the deficit really was such a disaster, why is Gregg demanding Congress add $678 billion to said deficit with tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires?

How on earth can anyone take these guys seriously?

Krugman: Op-Ed Columnist - Bush Tax Cuts - Now That’s Rich -

We need to pinch pennies these days. Don’t you know we have a budget deficit? For months that has been the word from Republicans and conservative Democrats, who have rejected every suggestion that we do more to avoid deep cuts in public services and help the ailing economy.

But these same politicians are eager to cut checks averaging $3 million each to the richest 120,000 people in the country.

What — you haven’t heard about this proposal? Actually, you have: I’m talking about demands that we make all of the Bush tax cuts, not just those for the middle class, permanent.

Some background: Back in 2001, when the first set of Bush tax cuts was rammed through Congress, the legislation was written with a peculiar provision — namely, that the whole thing would expire, with tax rates reverting to 2000 levels, on the last day of 2010.

Why the cutoff date? In part, it was used to disguise the fiscal irresponsibility of the tax cuts: lopping off that last year reduced the headline cost of the cuts, because such costs are normally calculated over a 10-year period. It also allowed the Bush administration to pass the tax cuts using reconciliation — yes, the same procedure that Republicans denounced when it was used to enact health reform — while sidestepping rules designed to prevent the use of that procedure to increase long-run budget deficits.

Obviously, the idea was to go back at a later date and make those tax cuts permanent. But things didn’t go according to plan. And now the witching hour is upon us.

So what’s the choice now? The Obama administration wants to preserve those parts of the original tax cuts that mainly benefit the middle class — which is an expensive proposition in its own right — but to let those provisions benefiting only people with very high incomes expire on schedule. Republicans, with support from some conservative Democrats, want to keep the whole thing.

And there’s a real chance that Republicans will get what they want. That’s a demonstration, if anyone needed one, that our political culture has become not just dysfunctional but deeply corrupt.

What’s at stake here? According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments.

And where would this $680 billion go? Nearly all of it would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans, people with incomes of more than $500,000 a year. But that’s the least of it: the policy center’s estimates say that the majority of the tax cuts would go to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent. Take a group of 1,000 randomly selected Americans, and pick the one with the highest income; he’s going to get the majority of that group’s tax break. And the average tax break for those lucky few — the poorest members of the group have annual incomes of more than $2 million, and the average member makes more than $7 million a year — would be $3 million over the course of the next decade.

How can this kind of giveaway be justified at a time when politicians claim to care about budget deficits? Well, history is repeating itself. The original campaign for the Bush tax cuts relied on deception and dishonesty. In fact, my first suspicions that we were being misled into invading Iraq were based on the resemblance between the campaign for war and the campaign for tax cuts the previous year. And sure enough, that same trademark deception and dishonesty is being deployed on behalf of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

So, for example, we’re told that it’s all about helping small business; but only a tiny fraction of small-business owners would receive any tax break at all. And how many small-business owners do you know making several million a year?

Or we’re told that it’s about helping the economy recover. But it’s hard to think of a less cost-effective way to help the economy than giving money to people who already have plenty, and aren’t likely to spend a windfall.

No, this has nothing to do with sound economic policy. Instead, as I said, it’s about a dysfunctional and corrupt political culture, in which Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of schoolteachers and firefighters, but declares cost no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience.

So far, the Obama administration is standing firm against this outrage. Let’s hope that it prevails in its fight. Otherwise, it will be hard not to lose all faith in America’s future.


I'm generally inclined to leave criticism of Pete Wehner, the former aide to Karl Rove and Minister of Propaganda for the Bush administration, to Jon Chait -- who seems to enjoy it.

But this Wehner gem deserves special attention. Politico ran an interesting item about the culture war, and the ways in which the right has responded to the Obama presidency by starting a fight over "whether he's moving the country toward socialism and over the very definition of what it means to be American." Wehner's insights on the subject were ridiculous, but important.

Pete Wehner, a former top official in the George W. Bush administration and a social conservative thinker, described the resistance to Obama as "beyond politics."

"What we're having here are debates about first principles," Wehner said. "A lot of people think he's trying to transform the country in a liberal direction in the way that Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction. This is not the normal push and pull of politics. It gets down to the purpose and meaning of America."

Read that quote again, because it's really significant -- Obama wants to move America to the left to the same extent that Reagan moved it to the right. This, Wehner believes, is "beyond politics" and falls outside "the normal push and pull" of our political system.

Now, whether Obama really is fulfilling Wehner's vision -- serving as a liberal counter-weight to Reaganism -- is open to debate. Hell, whether Reagan really succeeded in pulling the country to the right, by the standards of 21st-century conservatives, is itself worthy of skepticism. But the key here is Wehner's overarching contention -- politics in the United States can change, but it's only allowed to move in one direction. Reagan's conservative agenda was within American norms, because it was conservative. Obama's progressive agenda deserves to be labeled radical because it's not conservative.

A Democratic presidential candidate can present a progressive agenda to the electorate; that candidate can be easily elected, giving that agenda a mandate; and in office, that successful candidate can begin making compromises to move the vision forward through a labyrinthine Congress. But if the Democrat is successful, the result is necessarily at odds with "the purpose and meaning of America."

A center-left candidate, in other words, is allowed to run, and even allowed to win. He/she is not, however, allowed to govern. Why? Because it's fundamentally unacceptable -- liberalism is not part of "the normal push and pull of politics."

It's the kind of maxim that brings the larger political landscape into sharper focus.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently endorsed a very similar line of thinking a few weeks ago. He told reporters that, after the midterm elections, policymaking will have to change.

"What I hope we are going to have after November is more balance, more balance, which would give us the opportunity to do things together that simply were missing when you have this kind of disparity," McConnell said. "But, I'm not going to be very interested in doing things left of center. It is going to have to be center-right. I think the president is a flexible man. I'm hoping he will become a born-again moderate."

On its face, this seems idiotic. A "balanced" approach to lawmaking, McConnell argued, reflects a system in which the left gets nothing, and everything has to be center-right. Indeed, a "moderate" Democratic president would have no choice but to agree that every proposal be right of center.

But with Wehner's contention in mind, the coherence of McConnell's seemingly-insane demand comes through -- of course McConnell sees his way as an example of "balance"; in American politics, the left necessarily has to lose every dispute. Ideas are "balanced" if they strike a compromise between the right and the far-right.

Looking back over the last year and a half, it's hard to overstate how illustrative this is. The GOP line with the Obama White House has always been the same: "I'm willing to compromise with you, unless it means you getting some of what you want, in which case, forget it." This is precisely the kind of thinking, for example, that leads Republicans to embrace 80% of the Democratic health care plan, but nevertheless literally characterize it as "Armageddon" when it passes -- the left got some of what it wanted, which necessarily made the bill un-American.

Republicans really should just drop the pretense, and forget words like "balance" and "the normal push and pull of politics." What they mean isn't ambiguous: only Republicans should be allowed to govern, no matter what voters have to say.

Steve M. summarized this well: "If we were having an honest, well-informed discussion of modern American politics, we would acknowledge that this is what right-wingers believe: that governments to the left of a certain point simply should not be allowed to exist in America, regardless of any electoral results. And we would ask ourselves whether we still have a democracy if one party reserves the right, like guerrilla warlords, to destabilize any duly elected government that doesn't meet its criteria of acceptability."

Booman: Understanding Transformation
For once, I have to disagree with Steve Benen. There are certain instances where a president actually moves the country onto a long-term trajectory in a left or rightward direction. When Franklin Roosevelt created the SEC, FDIC, FHA, the Fair Labor standards, and Social Security, he moved the country decisively (and in some ways, irrevocably) to the left. When Ronald Reagan appointed conservative Supreme Court Justices, fired the Air Traffic controllers, hired conservatives to run his administration, and rewrote the tax code, he started a thirty-year movement to the right.

There have been other presidents since World War Two, but only Lyndon Johnson can stake a claim to being a transformative president, and his legacy is ambiguous. Arguably, he built on and entrenched the welfare state at the same time that he split the left and provided the momentum that the conservative movement needed to come into power with Reagan. The rest of the post-war presidents haven't moved things too much in any particular direction, at least not in any enduring way. But Obama is different, and that is what Pete Wehner is worrying about when he says this:

Pete Wehner, a former top official in the George W. Bush administration and a social conservative thinker, described the resistance to Obama as "beyond politics."

"What we're having here are debates about first principles," Wehner said. "A lot of people think he's trying to transform the country in a liberal direction in the way that Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction. This is not the normal push and pull of politics. It gets down to the purpose and meaning of America."

Benen interprets that statement as a kind of double-standard, where it's okay for the pendulum to move to the right under Reagan, but not okay for it to swing back to the left under a Democratic president. But that's not what Wehner is getting at. He's worried that a successful Obama presidency will wipe away all the progress (as he sees it) that the conservatives have made since Reagan took office. It's not a ridiculous concern. No conservative wants to look around in 2016 and realize that they're back to square one, circa 1980.

A lot of confusion has arisen because Obama has by instinct and necessity pursued a fairly traditional center-left course. His health care bill, for example, left liberals feeling half-full. His Wall Street reforms didn't go far enough for their taste. His foreign policies have failed to forcefully challenge the Establishment's assumptions. But just the health care bill alone has the power to permanently shift the political landscape in Washington in a way not seen since the enactment of Social Security. Liberals like to carp that the bill is similar to the Heritage Foundation's 1994 counterproposal to HillaryCare. Yet, those liberals forget that that the counterproposal was offered in bad faith. The goal was to scuttle any health care bill while appearing to be reasonable. Obama established the principle that the federal government is responsible for making sure every U.S. citizen has access to health care. From now on, the debate will focus on how to improve services, not on whether or not they should exist. That's transformation. And that's what Pete Wehner fears. The health care bill punched a hole through Reagan's sails, and by the time they get the thing patched up the boat will be headed in a leftward direction.

So, yes, the Republicans freak out any time a Democrat is in the White House. But this isn't just the push and pull of politics. And the reaction on the right shows that they know this.

That's why we're seeing this unprecedented obstruction and open hallucination. They may have held the line on Wall Street reform (although that remains to be seen) and they're holding steady (for now) on the Supreme Court, but they'll be damned if they're going to let the president pass immigration reform or cap and trade because they actually have the power to stop that kind of transformation.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the far-right lawmaker who'll head the House Budget Committee if Republicans take the House, has a fairly radical budget plan -- he calls it a "Roadmap for America's Future" -- which his party's leadership has been reluctant to embrace.

Dick Armey, apparently, is sick of it.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) on Sunday said lawmakers who have not signed onto Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget lacked "courage" and could be targeted by the conservative tea party movement as a result.

Armey's comments on NBC's "Meet the Press" came just moments after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sidestepped a question about Ryan's plan, which looks to balance the budget by reinventing slimmer versions of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the tax code.... [...]

"All Paul Ryan is saying is let Social Security be voluntary, let Medicare be voluntary," Armey said. "The fact that he only has 13 co-sponsors is a big reason why our folks are agitated against the Republicans as well as the Democrats -- the difference between being a co-sponsor of Ryan or not is a thing called courage."

As a substantive matter, Armey's description of Ryan's proposal is absurd. The "roadmap" is a right-wing fantasy, slashing taxes on the rich while raising taxes for everyone else. The plan calls for privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, and fails miserably in its intended goal -- cutting the deficit. As Paul Krugman recently explained, the Ryan plan "is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future."

Having said all of that, let's not be too quick to dismiss the larger political point of Dick Armey's complaints. After all, Ryan's plan may be ridiculous, and it may seek to radically transform governmental institutions and Americans' way of life, but it's also a fairly explicit summary of how Republicans would like to govern.

Ryan himself has conceded that his GOP colleagues are too afraid to endorse a plan they agree with: "They're talking to their pollsters and their pollsters are saying, 'Stay away from this.'"

To this extent, Armey raises a reasonable argument: if Paul is putting on paper what Republicans really believe, why don't they have the courage of their convictions? Why not have the guts to endorse a budget plan that reflects their actual thinking?

Armey and Ryan think the radical roadmap should be part of the debate -- and oddly enough, I couldn't agree more. Are Republicans on board with Ryan's roadmap or not? Is his plan a reflection of what GOP candidates would do with their majority? Shouldn't voters have a chance to hear from Republicans about this before there's an election?

The leading GOP official on budget issues has presented a proposal. It's not unreasonable to think every Republican candidate should say, before November, whether they think it's a plan worth pursuing.

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