Nancy Pelosi Is Not Giving Up Your E-mail Without a Fight

23 03 2013

Sometimes I swear Democrats are just as sleazy as Republicans. Not in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, though with senators like Robert Menendez in the news for possibly soliciting prostitutes and probably dealing out favors to a contributor, you do have to wonder. Liberals at least don’t waste time tilting at windmills with crusades against energy-efficient lightbulbs (Michele Bachmann), the United Nations’ plan to eliminate American golf courses (Ted Cruz) or creeping Sharia law (Bachmann again.) But when it comes to the little things — the tiny, everyday issues on which basic ethics are on display — Democrats aren’t pure as the driven snow either.

Like any good liberal who has ever innocently offered up her e-mail address in response to a plea to Help Defeat the Paul Ryan Budget! or Stand Up for Women’s Right’s Today!, my inbox is swamped with missives from everyone from Planned Parenthood to the DCCC to MoveOn. And like millions of other people, I am apparently on a first-name basis with the Obama folks, regularly receiving entreaties from “Jim” (as in Messina), “Anita” (as in Dunn) and Alixandria (no idea, but apparently she’s associated with the DNC) and being asked to “confirm” my “supporter record” (helpfully laid out in dollar terms) by kicking in $3 as soon as possible. Campaign-season metrics showed that the e-mails with the most banal subject lines — “Hey” or “Listen to this” — drew the best responses, but I have to say, anything that isn’t absolutely up-front with what it wants gets a one-way ticket into the trash bin. And the melodramatic hyperventilating that characterizes every NARAL e-mail I receive — is another doomed amendment to a random piece of legislation really going to end women’s rights as we know them? — doesn’t endear me to the cause either. For that reason, the automated Democratic response to an early-morning attempt to prune some of the biggest offenders from my Yahoo account particularly disappointed me.

Want to unsubscribe from the constant stream of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee e-mails? It’s not as easy as it looks. I didn’t expect to get away without a well-deserved guilt-trip; heck, of course I want to help elect liberals, and are a few quickly-deleted e-mail solicitations really such a high price to pay? (That said, has a DCCC e-mail ever actually prompted me to contribute? Nope. I gave at the website, thanks.) But the screen I was taken to when I clicked the “unsubscribe” link struck me as irritatingly disingenuous.

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Did you catch the dodge? A casual observer might assume that, by clicking on the link in Nancy Pelosi’s morning grovel that claims to remove your e-mail address from the DCCC list, you’ll be directed to a site that allows you to . . . remove your e-mail address. But instead of re-entering your address to OK the deletion, you’re asked to only “receive our most urgent messages.” It’s only a small ethical step away from the spammers who trick you into “unsubscribing” in order to confirm that, yes, there is a live person at the other end of that Yahoo account. In both cases, the solicitations won’t stop. And in the DCCC’s case, I have to wonder how many “urgent” issues will pop up every day, or how many events will be billed as “BREAKING” news.

There is an option at the bottom to actually unsubscribe, but it’s one more step away, a step that an irritated supporter trying to clean out her work inbox before an 8:00 a.m. meeting could miss. Now, I know this is a standard practice for online outfits. Even charities are determined to preserve their backers’ priceless personal information at almost any cost. Complaining about it will get me nowhere. But is it too much to expect that the party that paints itself as better, more ethical and closer to the people than the GOP actually be better and more ethical? Granted, perhaps the donations the DCCC takes in from an expanded e-mail list outweigh any reputational benefit of dealing with supporters in a straightforward fashion. However, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when the politicians I elect to represent me in Washington turn out to be no more principled than, uh, your average politician.

I almost feel guilty for complaining about how Democrats treat their supporters, as they certainly do better than the GOP on this front. The time I spent this fall volunteering for the Obama campaign was one of the best experiences of my life, and the campaign’s ability to reach out to literally anyone who walked through the door (from slightly unhinged women who offered us anchovies to high-level executives willing to make a few phone calls) and put them to work was one of the drivers of the president’s victory. I realize that politics is big business and that Obama succeeded in 2012 due in no small part to his campaign’s tech-savvy ability to capture e-mail addresses and mobilize supporters online. Indeed, one of the campaign’s most valuable assets is its vaunted e-mail list, which the GOP has been dismally unable to match. For this reason, I’m wary of being too critical about the Democrats’ online practices. Hey, they’ve worked pretty well so far. But sometimes you wish the people on your “team” would take the high road. Find some principles, stick to them, and occasionally stand up for them, even if it makes it slightly harder to hang onto those precious e-mail addresses.

Americans trust politicians so little and hate them so much that Congress’ approval ratings rarely make it out of the single digits. Surely Washington-hating citizens are thinking more about pork-barrel legislation and backroom horse-trading when they express distaste for the political class, but even the littlest incidents of sleaziness only contribute to the sense that our representatives will double-cross us at every turn, if given the chance. Ideally, politicians would eschew the biggest sins — giving preferential treatment to high-dollar donors, caving to special interests like the NRA — and receive a pass on the minor infractions. But it’s actually more realistic to hope for improvement on the little things. Often, as well, it’s the little things that cement a party’s reputation and come together to add up to an image that is either welcoming and honest or uncaring and shady. The GOP’s problems with Hispanics are rooted in its hostility to government and its history of opposition to anything that smacks of “amnesty,” but seemingly insignificant slights — their dogged use of the word “illegals,” Mitt Romney’s articulation of the party’s “self-deportation” philosophy — don’t help either. Likewise, the DCCC’s inability to produce an honest option to unsubscribe from its e-mail list sends the message to people that the party cares more about your money and your personal information than your trust.

Scoff at my naivete if you want, but I put in a lot of time to get Pelosi and Co. elected. If we’re friendly enough for her minions to address me as “Emily” and enthuse about “an incredible opportunity to meet Barack and Joe,” surely we’re friendly enough for her to at least pretend to treat me as a friend, not a cash cow. It may be an act, but in politics, image is everything. Every interaction is a chance for voters to decide whether their elected officials are basically honest, trustworthy emissaries to Washington or just another group of glad-handing opportunists. The little things count; they add up to big things. Aristotle once said that “we are what we repeatedly do.” To cite a less lofty source, H. Jackson Brown (the guy who wrote Life’s Little Instruction Book) quips that “character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

It may not matter much to the DCCC, but if anyone’s listening: Hey, Nancy. I’m looking.

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A Deal? You Can’t Handle a Deal!

5 03 2013
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The GOP has a shortage of a few good men

Ezra Klein had a short piece last week that gets to the root of the false equivalence syndrome that has infected so much of the Beltway media. Pundits like to distribute the blame for gridlock in Washington evenly; it preserves their reputation as bipartisan, straight-shooting pragmatists, even though all the evidence points to the absolute Republican intransigence on taxes as the real stumbling block. Thus, columnists like David Brooks can write, with a straight face, that while Republicans refuse to compromise on taxes, Democrats and President Obama are similarly stiff-necked about cutting spending, particularly spending on entitlements. As Derek Thompson writes at the Atlantic, “When negotiations between Republicans and Democrats are breaking down (which is to say, on weekdays), Washington centrists savor being above the fray and blaming each side. But occasionally they float so far above the fray that they disappear into the exosphere of evenhandedness and lose sight of the details on the ground.”

The problem is, this convenient penchant for evenhandedness doesn’t stand up to even the mildest scrutiny. James Fallows points out that “Obama has already conceded certain points that had been vaunted as game-changers, without any change in the game.” Republicans have taken all revenues, ever, off the table; even closing tax loopholes is now verboten, as every dime of those savings must be used in pursuit of their ultimate goal of lower marginal rates. Obama is not only willing to make spending cuts – his latest offer includes $1.1 trillion in cuts for a paltry $680 billion in revenue – but more than willing to make a deal on entitlements. Indeed, he has been so willing to curb Medicare spending that Mitt Romney just spent the last election demonizing the president for taking money from seniors. The inability of the media to admit that Obama has more than met Republicans halfway plays right into the hands of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, who do their best to perpetuate the myth that Democrats are just as stubborn. The sequester-mandated cuts will persist, proclaims Paul Ryan, “until the president is willing to do an agreement that deals with the entitlement problem and the debt crisis.They ignore the spending cuts the president proposes, characterizing his plan as all tax hikes. The meme is picked up by ostensibly fact-hungry journalists, like those at the Wall Street Journal, who write “President Barack Obama’s demand for new revenue is a central reason the two political parties haven’t come to agreement on a strategy for replacing the cuts” when it could just as easily be said that “Congressional Republicans’ demand for not a dime of new revenue is a central reason the two political parties haven’t come to an agreement on a strategy for replacing the cuts.” Likewise, Politico describes the situation thus: “Both sides have fiercely clung to their starting points — Obama has insisted that a solution include a balance of spending cuts and new revenues, while Boehner has dismissed any tax hikes out of hand.” It fails to note that Obama’s starting point already includes a concession to Republicans; if his position were equivalent to Boehner’s, he would be refusing to entertain any solution but tax increases.

You can legitimately criticize the president for being a poor negotiator; there’s a valid case, made by Bill Keller and others, that Obama should have driven a harder bargain in December prior to the “fiscal cliff,” when taxes were set to automatically increase and he had maximum leverage over Republicans. Instead, he cut a deal that included barely half the revenues he wanted and pushed the fight over the sequester three months into the future, when the playing field would tilt in the GOP’s favor. Now, the default setting is spending cuts, not tax hikes, and the pressure to cut a deal has been lifted from Republican shoulders. The administration has also suffered from serial underestimation, first of the GOP’s willingness to discuss further revenues after the fiscal cliff, and then of the power of the sequester’s defense cuts to force Boehner and McConnell back to the bargaining table. It might have been a savvier political move to allow the sequester to take effect in January, when there were still three months for the country to feel its pain before the March 27 deadline for Congress to pass a continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown. This might have given Obama more room to press for higher taxes as part of the CR; instead, the president has caved and consented to pass a CR fixing spending at the low levels of the sequester. Paul Begala writes at The Daily Beast that Obama has repeatedly underestimated the opposition, saying prior to the debt ceiling crisis that “I’ll take John Boehner at his word” that he wouldn’t put the credit rating of the United States at risk just to score political points. Begala suggests that the president’s “cardinal political error has been that at times he seems to lack the imagination to even conceptualize how truly nihilistic, irresponsible, partisan, and, yes, crazy his Republican opponents areAll these fine points, however, amount to strategic errors. They paint the president as a lousy negotiator, not a dishonest one. And they assume that any amount of leverage would have been enough to extract further tax increases from a party whose only cohesive identity rests on preventing tax increases. How does even the best negotiator in the world negotiate with an opponent whose idea of negotiation is shooting the hostage?

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The Atlantic’s James Fallows passes on a front page that he describes as “False Equivalence: The Pictorial Edition.”

It’s in the GOP’s best interest to promote itself as willing to negotiate yet stymied by the refusal of the president to engage on, say, meaningful entitlement reform. It absolves the party from ever having to confront its own inability to compromise. Hey, it’s not our fault, the other guy won’t give an inch either! Americans would be a lot more likely to blame Republicans if they realized the reality of the situation, and Republicans might be forced to admit that, well, yes – all they really care about is low taxes, and no matter what the president offers them, from a straight repeal of Obamacare to the elimination of Rick Perry’s notorious third cabinet department, will force them to budge. If responsibility for gridlock is distributed equally between the Party of No and the Party of Compromise, if complete intransigence is rewarded just the same as meeting the opposition halfway, what is the incentive for moving toward the middle? are Incidentally, this also shields them from a public far more willing to raise taxes on the wealthy than the far-right representatives they elect. Thus, we have the ridiculous spectacle of Republicans calling for reforms – Medicare cost-sharing, etc. – that they insist the president will never stomach . . . but that are listed on the White House’s own website as reforms the president is quite open to. “Republicans are debating their strategy as if President Obama’s offer consists solely of making rich people pay more taxes,” Jonathan Chait marvels at New York Magazine. “They won’t acknowledge his actual offer, which includes large cuts to retirement programs.”

Take a look at this amazing back-and-forth between John Boehner and David Gregory, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Props to Gregory for holding the Speaker’s feet to the fire, but the real story here is Boehner’s utter inability to answer the question. Instead, he dodges, returning to his talking point of “but we already got higher taxes” (never mind the pesky $1.5 trillion in cuts that preceded them). The president is willing to cut spending, Gregory says. Boehner, as if not hearing Gregory at all, responds: When is the president going to cut spending?

Gregory: Again, and the president has laid this out, he is serious about tackling the long-term spending problem, including dealing with Medicare, but he said it here. There’s an ironclad rule that Republicans have. No new revenue. And without that, there can be no deal.

Boehner: David, the president got $650 billion of higher taxes on the American people on January the first. How much more does he want, one. When is the president going to address the spending side of this?

Gregory tries again. “But the president, is he not committed to spending? Does his deal that we saw on the table not include over $900 billion in spending cuts over 10 years?” Boehner’s reply is no reply at all. “We’ve got a long-term spending problem that has to be addressed.” Does he think $900 billion doesn’t begin to address the problem? Does he have an alternative proposal? He never bothers to say.

Another portion of the interview is even more surreal, as Gregory points out that Obama has offered many of the same proposals that the GOP identifies as necessary for a deal:

Gregory: But he’s for means testing for wealthier Americans. He’s got that on the table according to the White House. And he’s for what’s called in this town chain CPI, which is basically a reduction in benefits over time. How is that not being serious about the long-term entitlement problem?

Boehner: Well, then why haven’t Senate Democrats passed the President’s plan? The House has passed a plan twice, over the last ten months, to replace the sequester. Senate Democrats have done nothing. It’s time for them to vote. It’s time for us to get back to regular order here in Congress.

Why hasn’t the Senate passed the plan? Well, Mr. Boehner, you may not understand this, but the Senate works a bit differently than the House, which you run as your personal fiefdom. Unlike Harry Reid, you don’t have to give a flying fig about the minority party unless you can’t muster sufficient votes in your own caucus — as has happened, to your abject embarrassment, more than a few times this year. You see, there’s something in the Senate called the filibuster. Senate Democrats have been united behind the president’s plan. It’s time for them to vote? They’ve voted. They’ve won a majority for the president’s plan. But because it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate, a handful of Republicans have been able to block it. That’s what passes for “regular order” in the Senate. And as for the plan you’ve supposedly passed to replace the sequester? Both votes were in the last Congress, and died when that session expired. Why won’t you vote on a replacement plan again? Well, because you wouldn’t even be able to get a bare majority of your party to vote for it. Boehner executes a similar dodge when he attempts to deny that the president has a plan to replace the sequester. Reminded that, actually, the president does have such a plan, he blathers, “Well, David that’s just nonsense. If he had a plan, why wouldn’t Senate Democrats go ahead and pass it?” Again, see: filibuster, abuse of.

Boehner is able to avoid talking about the president’s concessions on the CPI and means-testing by simply refusing to respond to Gregory. Other Republicans, when asked the same questions, come off sounding just as lame. The Times reports on an interview with Sen. Susan Collins:

“The president has to go first with plans for Medicare and Social Security,” she said. “Then I think you will see more receptivity on the Republican side to an overhaul of the tax code” that raises more revenue.

Right. Until he puts forward those plans, at which point it will be revealed that Collins’ language is really just code for signing on to the Republican plans for Medicare. She and her colleagues don’t want a plan, they want a concession: premium support or nothing. Thus are the goalposts moved, and the scary day on which the GOP might actually have to admit that it has no price for compromise at all – new revenues are a no sale, no matter the collateral. And then perhaps even centrist pundits will have to acknowledge that what is standing in the way of a grand bargain is not the administration’s unwillingness to meet Republicans halfway but Republicans’ own constant shifting of the very definition of “halfway.” They’re not waiting for the president to move halfway; they’re waiting to get their way.

This is why Sen. Lindsey Graham can go on Face the Nation and say things like “I’m willing to raise $600 billion in new revenue, if my Democratic friends would be willing to reform entitlements” when the members of his party who actually set the agenda — McConnell and Boehner — are on the next channel over declaring the GOP to be “done” with tax increases. Graham can “have it both ways,” as John Dickerson writes at Slate. He comes off as sounding reasonable, but ultimately benefits from his ability, aided and abetted by a press corps that won’t call him on it, to “proclaim the desire for a compromise approach, but then raise the bar on specific measures well beyond any reasonable standard.”

It would be nice if someone would actually hold these liars accountable, and Ezra Klein makes a worthy stab at it. He sits in on an off-the-record briefing with “one of the most respected Republicans in Congress” who seems genuinely clueless that Obama has endorsed every one of the savings and spending cuts that the GOP champions. Here’s a sample exchange:

Would it matter, one reporter asked the veteran legislator, if the president were to put chained-CPI — a policy that reconfigures the way the government measures inflation and thus slows the growth of Social Security benefits — on the table?

“Absolutely,” the legislator said. “That’s serious.”

Another reporter jumped in. “But it is on the table! They tell us three times a day that they want to do chained-CPI.”

“Who wants to do it?” said the legislator.

“The president,” replied the reporter.

“I’d love to see it,” laughed the legislator.

He can see it at the White House website, where the president’s plan — a one page summary, hardly heavy reading for the busy legislator — clearly lists $130 billion in “spending savings from Superlative CPI with protections for most vulnerable.” (The red box in the graphic.) In fact, during a speech to the National Association of Business Economics, administration economist Alan Krueger recently showed the audience how Obama’s proposal popped up on a page of Google search results and joked, “You can try this at home.”

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . It’s Obama’s plan!

Klein delves into some other policies that Republicans list as prerequisites for a deal on the sequester, like means-testing Medicare and reducing entitlement spending, that the GOP flat-out denies are part of the president’s offer. Mitch McConnell wants Obama to get behind “serious means-testing for high-income people” on Medicare . . . and the president has done just that. His online plan includes $35 billion in savings from “asking[ing] the most fortunate to pay more,” which refers to the goal, outlined in the White House’s most recent budget (also online, for your reading pleasure) of increasing income-based premiums for wealthy seniors by 15 percent until a quarter of all beneficiaries pay the higher prices. (See the blue box.) Part of the $35 billion would also come from “encourag[ing] beneficiaries to seek high value health care,” a reference to surcharges on Medigap supplemental insurance policies that insulate seniors from health care costs by covering medical expenses without co-pays or deductibles. Medigap is a favorite Republican target; Klein points to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch as a particular champion of curtailing the policies, which he believes encourage beneficiaries to “use about 25 percent more services than Medicare enrollees who have no supplemental coverage.”

Though Klein’s efforts to get to the roots of the false equivalence dilemma is commendable, the conclusion he draws — that “some of the gridlock in Washington is simply the result of poor information” — is far too charitable, suggesting that “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” He acknowledges that the real stumbling block is the GOP’s refusal to compromise on taxes; as McConnell said on Sunday, “I haven’t heard a single Senate Republican say they would be willing to raise a dime in taxes to turn off the sequester,” a statement that would be inconceivable coming from Harry Reid, who would hardly say that not a single Seante Democrat would be willing to cut a single dime of government spending. Yet Klein continues to maintain that “what shouldn’t be holding an agreement up is that top Republicans simply don’t know the compromises the White House is willing to make on Medicare and Social Security.”

This is nonsense. As David Firestone writes at the New York Times’ editorial page blog:

There isn’t a Republican in Washington — or even a casual viewer of cable news — who doesn’t know what Mr. Obama’s plan is, and what it has been ever since Republicans started the debt-ceiling crisis in 2011. He wants a mix of tax revenues and spending cuts to lower the deficit. He’s not pushing a plan of all tax hikes, and he’s not buying the Republican demand for all cuts. He’s the one willing to compromise.

Klein is too generous in extrapolating from the professed ignorance of one Congressman to conclude that the GOP leadership is really in the dark about the president’s negotiating positions. I’m willing to accept that there are a lot of stupid Republicans in Congress – Michele Bachmann and Paul Broun (the intellectual light who described evolution and the Big Bang Theory as “lies straight from the pit of Hell”), among many others, are living proof. But Boehner and McConnell, to say nothing of self-professed budget wonk Paul Ryan, are not that stupid. They know exactly what they’re doing when they deny, in a flat contradiction of the “reality-based community,” that Obama is as stiff-necked as they. Ryan, in fact, tells Post columnist Ruth Marcus that the sequester-mandated cuts will continue “until the president is willing to do an agreement that deals with the entitlement problem and the debt crisis.” What part of Obama’s willingness to give on entitlements — the same entitlements that Ryan and his running mate spent the last election vowing to preserve — and reduce the deficit has Ryan missed? Jonathan Chait is similarly skeptical, noting that “One of the most useful sentences of all time was uttered by Upton Sinclair, who said, ‘It is impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on not understanding it.'”

People’s understanding of reality is filtered through a prism reflecting all sorts of things other than reality, self-interest being among them. The information floating in the heads of members of Congress isn’t just the collection of the best data available to them. They read news largely from conservative news sources dedicated to framing issues from the perspective of the party’s decisions. They rely on like-minded partisans to help them make sense of the issues – especially on fiscal policy, which is complex. All this is to say that, if Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer, it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something – the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.

Ezra Klein may not be fooled, but he’s one 28-year-old with a blog at the Washington Post, and the rest of the False Equivalence brigade has effectively fallen for the ploy. As Brad DeLong would say, Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

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UPDATE: In a depressingly hilarious follow-up to his “Failure to Communicate” post, Klein relents: “File this under ‘Jonathan Chait is right.'” What disabused Klein of his sunny optimism? An eye-opening Twitter spat with Republican strategist Mike Murphy that showcases just how dishonest the GOP has become. Informed that the president has indeed volunteered every item that Murphy lists as a prerequisite for negotiations, Murphy proceeds to lard on more requirements, moving the goalposts instead of risking the prospect of admitting that there is nothing Obama could ever offer to spur the GOP to compromise. “Their objections to the deals on the table aren’t sincere,” writes Paul Krugman. “If convinced that Obama has met their demands, they just make more demands.”

Murphy, who has worked with John McCain and Mitt Romney, penned a Time column in February in which he wrote that “six magic words can unlock the door to the votes inside the Republican fortress: Some beneficiaries pay more and chained CPI, budgetary code for slightly lowering benefit increases over time.” Klein documents a Twitter exchange that begins with New York Times reporter John Harwood pointing out that, lo and behold, the magic words have been spoken! Murphy then denies this.

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Oh, dear. Obama did propose chained CPI as part of the cliff deal — and he’s proposed it as part of that pesky online proposal to replace the sequester. The Twitterverse reminds Murphy of this, at which point he decides that the “six magic words” just aren’t magical enough anymore. (Or maybe there are now seven magic words. Who knows.) He does just what Chait predicted in Part 1 of his thesis; he “comes[s] up with something: the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful.”

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Then Murphy retweets something that proves Part 2 — “or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out” — as well.

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Next is the most revealing tweet of all, in which Murphy reveals his real goal all along: Obama should just knuckle under and do what the GOP wants. The six magic words were never going to be enough to “unlock the door” to Republican votes. The magic words he actually needs to hear from Obama number only five: “I give up, you win.”

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Klein points out that Obama did move first on spending — see the $1.8 trillion in cuts signed into legislation in 2011, with no accompanying tax increases — but that “it didn’t seem to build much trust.” He admits that “the bottom line on American budgetary politics right now is that Republicans won’t agree to further tax increases and so there’s no deal to be had.” Klein’s return to reality — no, the GOP really isn’t interested in compromise — is worth quoting at length. It’s not much different from what Chait and others, like James Fallows at the Atlantic, have been writing for months, but it does highlight Klein’s knack for boiling down big issues. Since both the Republican negotiating stance — no compromise, and thus no deal — and the Republican policy stance — cutting entitlements instead of taxing the wealthy — are unpopular, it is “important for Republicans to prove that it’s the president who is somehow holding up a deal.” He continues:

This had led to a lot of Republicans fanning out to explain what the president should be offering if he was serious about making a deal. Then, when it turns out that the president did offer those items, there’s more furious hand-waving about how no, actually, this is what the president needs to offer to make a deal. Then, when it turns out he’s offered most of that, too, the hand-waving stops and the truth comes out: Republicans won’t make a deal that includes further taxes, they just want to get the White House to implement their agenda in return for nothing. Luckily for them, most of the time, the conversation doesn’t get that far, and the initial comments that the president needs to “get serious” on entitlements is met with sage nods.

The ultimate takeaway? The hunt for the ever-elusive Grand Bargain has been called off: “As long as the GOP’s position is they won’t compromise, there’s not going to be a compromise.”

One interesting question is how long the president will continue to negotiate in good faith when, no matter what he does or how realistic the proposals he puts forth, he is routinely accused of doing the opposite. Just as Republicans have learned to work the Beltway media’s false equivalence syndrome to their advantage, realizing that they can get away with utter intransigence while still only shouldering half the blame for Washington’s dysfunction, will Obama eventually conclude that there is no use in offering up carrots like chained CPI that infuriate his base? Unlike Boehner, of course, he’s not in danger of losing his job if he strays from the party line. But there are already signs that the president is increasingly frustrated with the willingness of supposed “centrists” to swallow Republican propaganda. By transforming OFA, his campaign organization, into the same sort of shadowy non-profit that he has in the past criticized the GOP for using, he may be shrugging: If they already think I play by the same rules as Republicans, then why not actually play by those rules? And right on cue, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and a chorus of campaign finance reformers are wringing their hands over OFA’s “selling access” to the White House. This makes me roll my eyes. Yes, it would be nice if the FEC would crack down on the 501(4)c organizations that essentially launder money from wealthy donors into political contributions. But until the rules apply to everyone, the president has learned his lesson in unilaterally surrendering and allowing them to apply only to himself.

For evidence that Republicans are slowly catching on to the idea that Obama might start employing their own tactics against them, look no further than the feigned indignation and faux outrage among conservatives over a fairly anodyne Washington Post story on Democrats’ efforts to recapture the House in 2014. Obama, the reporters suggest (and I say suggest, because they have zero direct statements from Obama to back their thesis), has decided that any second-term achievements depend on curtailing John Boehner’s ability to throw up roadblocks at every opportunity. Well, duh. Republicans apparently find this tantamount to Mitch McConnell’s infamous declaration that his first priority was to make Obama a one-term president. Hypocrisy, cry the poor, innocent GOP’ers. They’re shocked, just shocked, to find that a political party is, uh, thinking about how to win the next election. (Can you tell I don’t really understand the kerfuffle? I read the Post story. It was pretty standard stuff, with DCCC chair Rep. Steve Israel pointing out the obvious, that “to have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now.” So whatever.) Obama has apparently chosen, at least on the issue of OFA and by thinking ahead to 2014, to fight fire with fire. So far, he hasn’t chosen to do so on the budget; otherwise, we’d be seeing Obama insist that deficit reduction be achieved solely with massive tax increases. If the Republican denial of reality continues, perhaps he’ll adjust his offers to fit the GOP’s version of the world. They say he’s proposing nothing but tax hikes; fine, then why not propose nothing but tax hikes?

I suspect Obama is more reasonable, and has more patience, than that. He is, in his refusal to descend to John Boehner’s level and wrestle in the mud with Republicans, comporting himself with far greater class than I would be able to muster.





The Best Bad Option

26 02 2013

Ah, the changing face of conventional wisdom. Just a few short months ago, the talking heads in D.C. were confidently asserting that the sequester — the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1 — would never take effect. President Obama predicted in a presidential debate that the “meat axe” of the cuts, which amount to $1.2 trillion over ten years, would “never happen.” Cut to late February, and now we’re treated to headlines like “Congress Opens With Little Sign of Work on Sequester” and “On Cuts, Focus Shifts to How, Not If.” The president is still decrying the reductions, lamenting that “I do not want to choose between, ‘Let’s see, do I close funding for the disabled kid or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy ship yard or some other one?’” But hardly anyone thinks a deal will be made by Friday. Only in a world of perverse incentives could a package of indiscriminate budget cuts be the best of all the bad options on the table. But Washington’s dirty little secret is that, while the sequester is bad for all involved, hitting discretionary programs dear to Democrats and Pentagon spending important to Republican defense hawks, it also has some hidden perks. And it’s those perks that have both parties convinced that going ahead with the cuts is a better option than bending even an inch toward compromise in an effort to avert it.

In theory, both sides would rather have a grand bargain, a long term plan to reduce the deficit that replaces the sequester and finishes what the supercommittee started (but failed to finish) last year. Officially, the only thing standing in the way of such a bargain is the paltry $600 billion in revenues the president insists it include. In a rational world, one in which Republicans were as concerned with our “crushing national debt” as they claim to be, they would leap at a solution that handed them the deep entitlement reform and spending cuts they’ve been demanding in exchange for a much smaller amount of revenue. “Nobody gets what they want in politics,” writes Matt Yglesias at Slate. “What they do is strike deals to advance their objectives. If you say your top objective is spending cuts, and the president of the United States says he’ll give you spending cuts—huge ones—if you agree to tax increases, then the natural thing is to say yes to the deal.” The deal the president has offered seems to give Republicans nine-tenths of what they want — and indeed, one of the party’s old-hand defense hawks, Lindsey Graham, said yesterday that he would accept new revenues as long as they were part of a long term plan “to get us out of debt.” In an interview with CNN, Graham diverged from the GOP’s talking points and admitted, “I’m willing to raise revenue. I’m willing to raise $600 billion of new revenue if my Democratic friends would be willing to reform entitlements.”

Unfortunately, Graham misunderstands his party. For all the lip service Republicans pay to deficit reduction, their actions tell a different story. Their real priority, in every negotiation is to keep tax rates low and eventually lower them further. Or, as Paul Krugman has written repeatedly, “Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system.” The fiscal cliff deal, which raised rates on the wealthiest Americans, was widely perceived as a loss for the party, further emboldening the absolutely-no-revenues faction. The presidents offer this time around, which wouldn’t raise rates but instead increase revenue by limiting the very deductions that Republicans profess to want to strip from the tax code, should then hold appeal for a party seeking to avoid the deep defense cuts of the sequester. The truth is, however, that the center of the party has shifted rightward under Graham’s feet. The GOP doesn’t want to clear the underbrush from the tax code to get out of debt; they need those deductions to pay for their overarching goal of bringing down the top marginal rates, which they’d like to see somewhere in the 15 to 20 percent range, and possibly for reducing the corporate rate from its current 35 percent. John Boehner has said as much: “Yes, we should close loopholes, but we should do it as part of tax reform that lowers rates and helps create jobs.” So much for debt reduction. Graham’s offer then is a nonstarter for the Eric Cantors and Paul Ryans of the party, who are insistent that no sequester deal – and no grand bargain to replace it – contain a single penny of new taxes.

Their single-minded pursuit of lower taxes is evident in the lengths they’ll go to in order to reject a seemingly sensible deal from Obama. This can be seen in the way conservative pundits focus on the meager tax increases in Obama’s proposal to the exclusion of all else – especially the “all else” that includes the very entitlement reforms they claim to want. “Where’s the president’s plan to avoid the sequester?” John Boehner has demanded, ignoring the fact that 1) the president has a plan and 2) it’s available, as David Brooks learned to his embarrassment, on the White House website. Nevertheless, Boehner lies through his teeth, reducing a proposal that includes significant spending cuts to a simple tax hike. He continues: “Have you seen one? I haven’t seen one. All I’ve heard is he wants to raise taxes again.” This makes strategic, if not logical, sense. It allows Republicans to denounce the president as an irresponsible tax-raiser while giving themselves cover to avoid doing what they actually fear the most – giving this president an iota of what he wants. Allowing Obama to succeed, even to succeed at negotiating a compromise, would negate everything they’ve said for the past four years about his incompetence and the impending socialist doom. As Jonathan Chait writes at New York Magazine,

They will endorse Boehner’s impossible-to-attain goals, and they will denounce Obama’s imaginary all-tax alternative . . . But consideration of the actual choice at hand — reduce tax deductions and cut Medicare and Social Security in a manner acceptable to Obama, versus seeing if Obama will cancel out sequestration with no replacement, versus accepting sequestration as permanent policy — is getting no hearing at all.

The sequester offers other perks for the GOP as well. For the increasing number of senators and representatives who take after Rand Paul and would just as soon slash defense spending as anything else, the cuts to the Pentagon aren’t especially worrisome. “It’s a pittance,” Paul says about the automatic cuts. “I mean, it’s a slowdown in the rate of growth. There are no real cuts happening over 10 years.” These are not the McCain/Graham/Ayotte defenders of every aircraft carrier and multi-billion-dollar fighter jet; they represent a new generation of starve-the-beast libertarians and Tea Partiers who want to shrink the federal government at any cost. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, in his recent profile of Eric Cantor, describes this faction of “restless” GOP’ers “two dozen younger members, most of whom have been elected since 2010 and have what generously might be called a dismissive attitude toward their leaders, whom they see as holdovers from the big-spending era of George W. Bush.” Even such a Republican stalwart as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole recently proclaimed flatly that “fiscal questions trump defense in a way they never would have after 9/11.” The sequester cuts may be blunt, but they will bring discretionary spending to the lowest levels since the 1950s, a concession which Republicans could never have wrung from Democrats as part of a grand bargain. Once these cuts are in place, the thinking goes, they will set a new baseline from which to negotiate, putting the president in the position of asking for spending increase — a far less popular stance then defending existing programs against cuts.

This argument is bolstered by a chorus of think tank and editorial page voices on the right that point out the sequester cuts won’t even decrease overall spending; they’ll just slow its growth. If the government can’t find 3 percent to cut, they’re just not looking hard enough. “If we can’t squeeze a couple of pennies out of every dollar, we might as well begin our great national bankruptcy proceedings right now,” writes National Review. (For what it’s worth, that 3 percent number is inaccurate, as it assumes the cuts are distributed across the entire budget. But because mandatory spending like Medicare is exempt, the cuts are closer to 8 percent of the discretionary budget and 13 percent at the Pentagon.) Mathematics aside, the idea that enough fat can be found to easily pare those pennies on the dollar is the motivation behind the newest GOP proposal to give the president flexibility in implementing the cuts; it would spare the most crucial defense programs and prevent the president from predicting an apocalyptic future without air traffic controllers and border agents, while still delivering the cuts that the Paulites have been noisily declaiming as not deep enough.

Any comprehensive deal to avoid the sequester would trade away the best leverage the GOP thinks it has to substantially reduce discretionary spending. The party wants payback for a fiscal cliff deal its base has interpreted as entirely comprised of tax increases (only if you don’t count the 1 trillion in prior spending cuts), and no pursuit of an elusive grand bargain will stand in its way. Unlike the fiscal cliff, on which inaction would have caused a tax increase, standing firm on sequestration leads to spending cuts — advantage, GOP. (Hilariously, the fiscal cliff deal that Republicans rationalized to Grover Norquist as a tax cut from the automatic hikes is now being portrayed as the only tax increase the president will get. Huh.) The only grand bargain the extreme wing of the party will accept is one which leaves the tax code primed for rate reduction. The GOP may ultimately be cutting off its nose to spite its face, as the president seems unlikely to cave on revenues even after the sequester goes into effect, but it is nothing if not determined to try. Republicans are also counting on — or at least hoping — that the effects of the sequester are muted enough to essentially call the presidents bluff. “I think he’s trying to scare the American people,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal of the parade of horribles trotted out by the Obama administration in its detailed, state-by-state breakdown of the effects of the sequester. Of the $85 billion in cuts slated for fiscal 2012, only $44 billion will really hit this year, and the GOP knows its constituencies are the least likely to feel the pain of reduced Head Start funding, lower unemployment benefits and federal workforce furloughs. Ironically, what was once seen as a win for Democrats — the exemption of entitlement programs for the elderly — may end up benefiting the other side, as those programs disproportionately serve a Republican population.

Once the country sees that slicing $85 billion from a $3.6 trillion budget  is not so world-ending after all, the GOP feels it will be in a stronger position to demand even further spending cuts. Polls show that only one in four Americans are following the debate over the sequester “very closely,” and even fewer — one in five — claim to understand what it’s about. Those are good numbers for Republicans, who are counting on the public to shrug off the reductions; even better is the fact that only 30 percent of respondents predict the sequester will have a “major impact” on their personal financial situation. That’s a far smaller slice than the majority of people who were worried about the fiscal cliff, and may present a problem for a president who needs average Americans to phone their congresspeople and generally scream bloody murder after March 1. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismisses Obama’s public hand-wringing, sniping that “the president’s a master at creating the impression of chaos,” but thus far the electorate doesn’t seem too terrified. The Washington Examiner confidently opines that “the White House is setting itself up for an embarrassing Chicken Little moment this Friday.” If the sky does fall, Republicans have been doing their best, aided by an assist from Bob Woodward (who seems to have some bizarre grudge against the Obama White House), to pin the blame for the sequester on the president. He thought it up, according to the Woodward-blessed version of history, so he should be held responsible for the GOP’s refusal to work together to avoid it.

Any Republican attempt to pin the blame on Obama will get an assist from pundits who consider it their bipartisan responsibility to shake their heads with disgust at both sides. Still, the GOP has a pretty weak case when the Washington Post, which loves to pretend both parties are equally to blame for the impasse, admits that Obama is “He is correct, too, on the larger point: Such a deal is what’s needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes.” Obama’s real fault? He is “not leading the way to a solution.” Thus, the Republican refusal to compromise somehow becomes Obama’s fault. Yes, folks the president has failed to perform Jedi mind tricks on John Boehner! He has failed to sweet-talk the Tea Partiers in the House who call him a Communist and demand to see his birth certificate, but who would so bow to the Cult of the Presidency that all they need to fall in line is leadership. It’s the standard Bob Woodward dodge of blaming the president for gridlock because, well, he’s the president. Woodward says it at the end of his book “The Price of Politics” when he veers from the reportorial narrative to insert a strange editorial aside that ultimately holds the president responsible for not exerting the full force of his office — a force that Woodward, who is perhaps thinking of Nixon — considers all-powerful: “Presidents work their will — or should work their will — on the important matters of national business. Obama has not.” The Post says it flat out in an editorial: “He is the president.” And a president facing an intractable opposition is obviously not doing enough to lead. Jonathan Chait highlights a column by National Journal’s Ron Fournier that makes the same ludicrous case that the president, not Congress, is always responsible for failure: “His aides and allies will ask, ‘Exactly what can he do to get the GOP to deal? That is a question best put to the president, a skilled and well-meaning leader elected to answer the toughest questions.”

The Post editors aren’t the only ones who think Obama can persuade the GOP to head off the sequester by sheer force of will. David Ignatius follows the Post-Woodward model, first assuring the reader that he’s not drawing a false equivalence — “it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame,” in Ignatius’s words, or “Mr. Obama is being less irresponsible” in the Post’s — and then promptly . . . drawing false equivalence. After proclaiming that Republicans suffer from “Obama derangement syndrome” and is “addicted” to its “ability to scare the heck out of everybody and run the car into the ditch,” then declares that all the president needs to do is issue “a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone onboard, those who voted for him and those who didn’t.” How, exactly, would such a statement end Republican obstruction? And how would it differ from asking the parties to come together to support a balanced plan — which is exactly what Obama is already calling for? I’d love to know what Ignatius considers the magic words, because I bet it would sound a lot like this:

There are always going to be some areas where we have genuine disagreement, but there are more areas where we can do a lot more cooperating than we have seen in the past couple years. At some point, we’ve got to do some governing. And, certainly, we can’t keep careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.

Ignatius’s wise words? No, Obama’s, spoken just this weekend at the National Governors Association meeting. But leave it to a pundit to find fault even with that. As Matt Yglesias writes, “Republicans are adhering to a bad principle, and Democrats are failing to persuade them to abandon their bad principle.”

If Democrats haven’t put enough effort into persuasion, perhaps it’s because they’re not so petrified about the sequester after all. For all the advantages that the sequester holds for Republicans, it has significant upsides for Democrats as well — and Democrats, unlike the GOP, with its public splits between the John McCain and Rand Paul wings of the party, are at least presenting a united front. In fact, the sequester was originally thought to be a better deal for Democrats. Even as the supercommittee struggled to come to the much-vaunted grand bargain, Ezra Klein and other liberal pundits were musing that its failure wouldn’t be a huge catastrophe. “An across-the-board sequester is the crude work of a hatchet, not a scalpel,” Klein wrote at the time, “but a lot of Democrats would prefer crudely implemented, broad cuts that target defense and exempt the social safety net to narrow cuts to social programs that are handled delicately.” Paul Krugman, as is his wont, was even more direct, writing that “If the supercommittee fails, as expected, it will be time to celebrate.” The president’s doomsday predictions aside, that argument still holds enough truth to give the deep discretionary cuts a silver lining. Democrats claim to be willing to compromise, offering an amount of revenue far reduced from their original ask and even further reduced from the Simpson-Bowles plan, which most people forget would have raised $2.5 trillion by assuming the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts. In all honesty, however, liberals would just as soon not have to make the sort of hard deals and take the painful, base-infuriating votes that compromise would entail. After an election that largely validated Obama’s approach to solving the country’s fiscal problems, to give in now would be especially grating. The president has placed the blame squarely on the GOP, stating that “there are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special-interest tax breaks. And that’s what’s holding things up right now.”

Liberals may love their discretionary spending — regulatory agencies, science research — but they love Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security more. That sort of mandatory spending is entirely exempted from the sequester; even Medicare, the biggest long-term driver of our deficits, will remain untouched, save for a reduction in provider fees that won’t even hit beneficiaries directly. As good Keynesians, Democrats won’t relish the austerity brought on by the cuts, and they certainly don’t want to see the economy dragged back into a recession on Obama’s watch, but they also won’t have to face the wrath of the AARP. The liberal half of the cuts are restricted to discretionary spending. The sequester, despite being a blunt meat-axe of an instrument and ultimately a short-term fix, hands Democrats not only a better deal than any proposed grand bargain on the scale of Simpson-Bowles, which contained the revenues lacking in the sequester but also made uncomfortable Medicare cuts, pared Social Security benefits, and limited popular tax breaks. Another crucial detail hardly anyone remembers about Simpson-Bowles is that, before it became the sine qua non of budget solutions, Nancy Pelosi hated it, and Republicans only liked it because it gave them a rejected proposal to use as a cudgel against Obama. Such a long term fix would have forced Democrats to confront their skittishness about touching entitlements, and would have tested just how far they were willing to go to reach a compromise. In terms of entitlements, the sequester is even better than the president’s own proposal to Boehner in their negotiations over the fiscal cliff, in that it doesn’t include the chained CPI — an alternative measure of indexing Social Security cost-of-living increases that would pare benefits — that is anathema to the left. The sequester is not a real solution, and sure, it just kicks the can further down the road, but it also offers politicians what they like best: a chance to duck tough decisions.

Democrats also take heart from polls showing that Americans are likely to blame Republicans for the effects of the sequester, a reflection of the two parties’ overall popularity. In a recent Washington Post-Pew survey, 45 percent of respondents would blame Republicans for the impasse, while only 32 percent would blame the president. Furthermore, a Wall Street Journal poll found that, when asked who is working to unify the country, Americans chose the president over Republicans, 48 percent to 22 percent. Over 60 percent felt Republicans are driven primarily by partisanship. In a sharp contrast to Republicans, Democrats are hoping the public is affected enough to pressure the GOP into caving on revenues; that’s why Obama has finally unleashed his cabinet members to talk up the supposedly devastating effects on their agencies, from the “more than 100,000 formerly homeless people” that Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan worries will be kicked out of their housing to the funding cuts for public prosecutors that Eric Holder professes will make Americans “less safe” to “34,000 detention beds” for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation about which Janet Napolitano asks, “How do I pay for those?” The president may indeed be overstating the impact of the sequester when he suggests that “thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off” or “hundreds of thousands of Americans will lose access to primary care and preventive care like flu vaccinations and cancer screenings” but Pelosi and Reid have to hope he’s not. Reid has gingerly admitted that “Not everyone’s going to see these cuts on Saturday, but they’re going to kick in.” His fingers are surely crossed that the “kick” will be hard and swift. Otherwise, he and his party could end up in a weaker position than before, forced to deal on entitlements without even the sweetener of added revenue to feed to their base.

In a zero-sum game in which both sides try to minimize their losses, the cuts nobody wanted have become the cuts that everybody can swallow. Behind the campaign style panic, even Obama, one has to assume, is more sanguine than he lets on. The problem with high-stakes brinkmanship is that one side has to lose, and lose big. We may not know who that will be until March 27, the new drop-dead date on which the continuing resolution funding the government expires and a 1990s style shutdown looms. (That shutdown, it should be remembered, was widely perceived as a disaster for Newt Gingrich’s Republicans.) But by April, there’s likely to be a clear winner, as well as an opposition that is clearly and recklessly unhappy.





Why We Have a Budget Deficit, in One Sentence*

25 02 2013

* Bear with me here. I promise, I’ll get to the one sentence.

Ezra Klein had a post last week on how the debate on taxes has moved so far to the right, from the 2.6 trillion proposed by the original Simpson-Bowles plan to Obama’s 1.2 trillion post-election offer to John Boehner, to the paltry $600 billion secured by the fiscal cliff deal. Even an agreement to replace the sequester would probably only net another $600 billion or so. Much of the responsibility for the shifting center “may lie as much with Democrats as Republicans,” Klein writes, pointing to Obama’s declining revenue demands and the constrains imposed by his campaign promise not to raise taxes on income under $250,000. More interesting, however, is how Klein explains the root cause of our deficits. Here are the relevant bits:

Yet even as the tax debate has moved to the right, the spending debate has moved to the left. Republicans today promise to leave Medicare and Social Security benefits untouched for at least the next decade. They also want to increase defense spending above its current levels and are beginning to make their peace with the permanence of the Affordable Care Act, which Boehner now calls, pointedly, “the law of the land.”

The consensus on spending, in other words, requires a very different consensus on taxes — or vice versa. “If we keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid largely unchanged, we’re going to need a significant amount of additional revenue,” says [conservative tax expert Alan] Viard. “In fact, we’ll need additional revenue even if we curtail them somewhat. It’s just not realistic to think we’ll cut their growth enough to not need more revenue. And some of that revenue is going to have to come from the bottom 98 percent.”

Federal Spending v Revenue % GDPNot only are tax rates at record lows, but tax collections are also in a trough, representing a mere 15.8 percent of GDP — obviously unsustainable, given that we spent over 22 percent — down from a high of 20.6 percent in 2000. The Republican balanced budget amendment fantasy envisions an unrealistic 18 percent, yet when pressed to identify cuts to make that happen, even Paul Ryan is reduced to non-specifics. That’s because neither party is seriously suggesting we curtail the main components of our spending. Republicans want to keep taxes and spending at historical levels — that’s their point when they complain that spending is higher under Obama than at any time since 1945 — but, as Jonathan Cohn observes, we also ask the government do far more for far more people (thanks, baby boomers! thanks, LBJ!) than ever before. What we ask of government, what we ask of ourselves collectively, is more than what we’re willing to ask of ourselves individually. We haven’t yet reconciled the government we want with the taxes we have. We haven’t had to — we’ve been able to have our cake and eat it too, to have our Medicare and our low taxes, by borrowing money and running up the national debt.

deficit pollIn a way, this disconnect is not surprising. It merely reflects public opinion; elected officials simply do what we expect of them. In polls, Americans routinely say that they want to cut spending, yet when asked about specific programs, they want to preserve all the big ones. Social Security? Don’t touch it. Medicare? Hands off. The only things Americans are willing to cut have been foreign aid and Big Bird, which represent minuscule portions of the budget. Out of the 19 government programs presented to respondents in a recent Pew survey, not a single one attracted a majority willing to cut spending. The closest call was foreign aid, where 48 percent would tolerate a decrease. Though there was a partisan divide, with Republicans more willing to make cuts in most areas than Democrats, there were only two categories — foreign aid and unemployment benefits — that a majority of Republicans wanted to slash. In no category did even plurality of Democrats support cuts. “What those numbers make clear is that most people live in a fantasy world where overall federal spending decreases even as spending on virtually every federal program increases,” write Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake at the Washington Post.

Americans’ reluctance to accept substantial spending cuts is hardly a shocker, given that Republicans have spent the last 30 years convincing people that all government is wasteful pork. The delusion that the budget is nothing but fat is perpetuated b by the sheer stupidity of lines like this one, from Speaker of the House John Boehner: “No one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cellphones, and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines.” Yes, taking away those free cell phones — a sleazy reference to the racist “Obamaphone” meme that cropped up on the Drudge Report during the election — will balance the budget! At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait mocks Boehner’s deliberate ignorance:

What Boehner has going for him here is a generalized ignorance about the federal budget. Americans think there’s lots of waste and don’t grasp that balancing the budget through spending cuts would require cutting programs they don’t want to cut. Boehner’s best play is to keep the debate on the level of abstraction, focused on mythical waste.

This reinforces a point made in David Leonhardt’s excellent e-book on the deficit, “Here’s the Deal.” Via the Wonkblog roundup of the book’s highlights:

Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil-industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by age 70—and, to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.

Leonhardt offers another insight, however, that does an even better job of summing up the problem that Ezra Klein outlines above. It struck me as profound at the time but seems even more crucial now, as it boils down our budget problems into a single, pithy sentence.

In the simplest terms, Republicans have won the debate on taxes, and Democrats have won the debate on benefits.

That, in short, is the result of demanding a larger government than the one we are willing to pay for. We’ve absorbed the GOP’s mantra of low taxes, but we haven’t yet signed onto the accompanying low level of services that many low-tax red states are forced to accept. Leonhardt continues: “We, the voters, have chosen the winner of each. In exchange, we have a federal government facing enormous deficits in coming decades.”

And until we reconcile the two philosophies, and stop taxing like Republicans and spending like Democrats, those deficits — and the accompanying political gridlock over how to deal with them — are not going away.





Further Adventures in Redefining “Serious”

22 02 2013
deficit pdf2

What’s this? A plan?

I complained yesterday about a Washington Post editorial that defined “serious” not as “reasonable” or “sane” but as “politically possible,” thereby eliminating from contention any proposal that doesn’t automatically accept the Republicans’ utter refusal to budge an inch on new taxes. “Serious,” then, must always take into account the GOP’s refusal to play ball, which simply validates the party’s inability to compromise.

Today, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum catches — surprise, surprise — NYT columnist David Brooks taking the semantic dishonesty a giant step further. Any plan, no matter how rational or well-designed, that can’t win Republican votes is not only unserious but doesn’t even exist. Brooks has long been the king of false equivalence, churning out inane columns that hew religiously to his “a pox on both their houses!” worldview. His most recent production invents some faux-hipster phrases — he seems quite proud of describing the parties’ maneuvering as the “Permanent Campaign Shimmy” and the “Suicide Stage Dive” — and, as usual, distributes blame evenly among all the D.C. players. Here’s Brooks, with Drum’s emphasis:

Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy . . . . Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town.

Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He hasn’t? No proposal at all? That might come as a surprise to the White House, which serves up its proposal here, right out on the web for everyone to see. Was Brooks’ Internet browser broken? As Drum explains, the plan is actually quite detailed, calling for $700 billion in revenues, $1.1 trillion in spending cuts and a slew of specific initiatives, including further reductions in Medicare spending and a move to the chained CPI, which is hated on the left because it would reduce Social Security cost-of-living increases.

The plan exists. It would avert sequestration. Republicans don’t like it, but it actually fits the deficit reduction option most popular with the public, 73 percent of which told Pew Research that they prefer exactly the sort of “balanced” proposal the president has called for, made up of “mostly” spending cuts and some tax increases. It certainly contains more than “taxes on the rich.” And, as Matt Yglesias notes at Slate, Brooks “has a particularly egregious problem because not only have Republicans been intransigent they’ve never reduced a deficit reduction plan.” The vaunted Paul Ryan budget cut nothing from Medicare for a decade, and Mitt Romney would have actually increased its spending. Yglesias writes:

The Ryan budget allegedly reduces fiscal problems over the long-term by slowly phasing-in Medicare cuts starting 11 years in the future. But within the medium-term window, Republicans have never put forward a deficit reduction plan. They’ve simply suggested the vague-but-politically-convenient concept that this can be achieved without raising taxes on anyone or cutting spending on any of the currently elderly or the military.

Meanwhile, Drum takes Mr. False Equivalence to task:

Brooks is right about one thing, though: it’s not politically plausible. But that has nothing to do with either the reasonableness of the plan or with Obama’s willingness to cut a deal. It’s solely because of Republicans’ flat refusal to tolerate any deficit reduction plan that includes even a dime in additional revenue. Unless you believe that any proposal which doesn’t pander to this intransigence is inherently unserious—and I’m not sure why you would—it’s unclear to me how this can be laid at Obama’s feet.

I know precisely why you would. For equal-opportunity-blamers like Brooks, acknowledging the fact that full responsibility for the latest political crisis lies squarely with one party would violate the preconceived notion that both sides must always, always share in the blame. If Democrats and Republicans aren’t being similarly unreasonable, Brooks might have to face the reality that the GOP has become the problem. Our budget issues will never be solved by each party moving an equal distance, because the GOP has so far to move and its demands are so much further from the center than the Democrats’ that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are completely unwilling — or unable — to negotiate. And Brooks might have to admit that being a centrist in today’s Washington no longer means being halfway between the parties. It means rejecting the Republican slide toward extremism — call it the Right-Wing Rumba — as dangerous for politics and for the country.

Until then, the folks at Webster’s will be busy, as “serious” gets defined further down every day.

 

UPDATE: Ezra Klein just posted an interview in which Brooks sorta, kinda admits that the president has a plan: “I probably went a bit too far when saying the president didn’t have a response to the sequester save to raise taxes on the rich . . . I’m going to attach a note to the column, if it’s not up already.” But he’s still determined to blame Obama as much as the GOP. Klein points out that “it seems a bit dangerous and strange to say the boundaries of the discussion should be set by the agenda that lost the last election,” and Brooks — shocker — calls for Obama to “govern from the center.” So Klein mentions that, well, the president’s proposal is pretty centrist, and Brooks’ comeback is . . . yeah, he just doesn’t think so. Motivated reasoning at work, folks.





“Serious” Gets a New Entry in Webster’s

20 02 2013

I complain often and loudly about the disease of false equivalence, which holds that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for every crisis and that both parties have moved an equal distance toward the extreme wings of their parties. “Gridlock,” by the standards of the Beltway media, is caused not by the GOP’s refusal to compromise but by the hard-headedness of people on either side, despite all indications to the contrary. President Obama, for example, is perfectly willing to hand Republicans spending cuts as long as he gets modest revenue increases in return. By contrast, the GOP will not tolerate a single dollar more in taxes, but demands even deeper spending cuts. The equivalent position on the left would be to insist on a budget with no cuts and all revenues, which puts Obama squarely in the center.

That, however, is not how the false equivalence gods of the Washington Post editorial board see it. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait takes the board to task for an editorial titled “The Blame Game Over Sequestration” that maintains “neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position.” This, despite the fact that the paper has editorialized against the deep cuts in social spending offered by Republicans and weighed in for the Buffet Rule and curbs to agricultural subsidies suggested by the president. Suddenly, when the president offers these things as a replacement for the sequester, they become not worthy policies but “one big non-starter” because they will never win Republican votes. And with that, the Post has completely swallowed the GOP’s framing of the issue, hook, line and sinker.

Chait is brutal:

These sorts of argumentative gymnastics are required when your dedication to the appearance of nonpartisanship trumps any intellectual integrity or commitment to particular policy goals. The Post set out to blame both sides for the impasse and obviously worked backward through the reasons in order to rationalize this pronouncement. The hash of pseudo-reasoning on display is the necessary outcome of that impossible task.

So far, however, nothing new. The Post is not known for its consistent or particularly intelligent editorial stances; if we listened to Fox on 15th Street, the U.S. would be invading Syria and no one would sleep at night for fear of the crushing national debt. But Slate’s Matt Yglesias offers some truly smart insight into the mentality behind the false equivalence that runs rampant in D.C. circles. It’s worth quoting at length, with the key bits highlighted:

But where Chait sees illogic, I see the exploitation of an important principle. It involves the use of the word “serious” as in “neither party has staked out anything like a serious negotiating position”. By invoking the Principle of Seriousness, a way is provided out of the box. That’s because seriousness can refer both to the merits of an initiative or to its political viability. So scrapping the minimum wage in favor of a Guaranteed Basic Income isn’t a serious proposal since obviously it stands zero chance of passing congress.

Once you embrace the Principle of Seriousness, the way is clear for rigorous BipartisanThink. If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides. Balance is restored to the force.

This is, I think, exactly what is going on. President Obama’s solution to the sequester might be eminently more palatable to the editors, but so long as it includes new revenues, the GOP will not budge an inch toward passing it. Ergo, it is not a “serious” solution because, though reasonable, it does not provide a realistic path forward.

“Serious” no longer means “sane” or “reasonable.” The GOP has so succeeded in convincing the media and the American public that its most extreme whims must be catered to, no matter the price, that “serious” has been Frank Luntz focus-grouped into a completely different meaning. Just as “estate tax” became “death tax” — or, to use a liberal example, “gun control” became “ending gun violence” — the Post morphs “serious” into “politically possible.” And in doing so, it indeed provides the editors an “out” to continue labeling both parties equally intransigent and unserious. Otherwise, the paper might have to face the fact that one side of the aisle has moved decisively, destructively to the right.

This redefinition of “serious” wades into some dangerous territory, because “serious” automatically becomes whatever each party stakes out as its non-negotiable position. It hands the barometer of good policy and reasonableness over to the very politicians whose persistent inability to reach a solution is the epitome of unreasonableness. If those willing to slash Medicaid spending, declare fetuses and corporations to be people, and fry the planet in pursuit of fossil fuels are allowed to rewrite the dictionary, “serious” — defined by what is able to pass Congress — will only move further and further to the right. If Democrats started insisting tomorrow that any plan to head off the sequester must include a $100 check to everyone who voted for Obama, would that then become part of a “serious” Post solution? It’s no sillier, really, than an unwillingness to raise taxes even one iota to secure far deeper spending cuts – which is exactly the position of the GOP.

Nowhere in politics is the “serious” rethink more evident than in the latest iteration of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. The original plan, despite the lip service paid to it by Republicans who seem to have not actually read the proposal, was actually to the left of Obama on taxes. It raised $2.5 trillion in revenues, nearly as much as it cut in spending, and contained elements anathema to Republicans, like the elimination of lower tax rates on capital gains. Simpson Bowles 2.0, released this week, seeks only $1.3 trillion in higher taxes, an indication of just how far to the right the so-called “common sense” position has shifted over the past three years. When Ezra Klein asked Bowles to explain the changes, this was his reasoning:

Simpson-Bowles 1.0 was an attempt to get to the right answer while Simpson- Bowles 2.0 was an attempt to get to an answer. “We weren’t trying to put out the ideal plan,” he said. “We were trying to put out something that might be able to get done.”

In short, the “serious” plan is no longer the best or most reasonable plan. It’s the one that is considered politically feasible, the one that “might be able to get done” — emphasis on the might, given the GOP’s utter unwillingness to raise a single dime in revenue.

The tug of war over the budget sequester is never going to end until one side gives ground, and neither side will give ground so long as the Post’s purveyors of Washington groupthink give the extremists cover. Yglesias’s interpretation of the editors’ logic may be spot-on, but it’s not the sort of thinking that should be normalized. Ezra Klein’s description of the new Simpson-Bowles plan, with its concessions to reality as framed by the Republican Party, could just as well describe the Post’s editorial board:

Their original effort was an attempt to build a center around a proposal they thought was the right answer. The new effort is an attempt to pick a center between the two parties. The credibility that once came from being at least somewhat outside the political system has been traded for the possible influence that comes from working within it.

That’s what false equivalence is all about: an abandonment of the right, factually accurate reading of a situation in favor of a version that seeks to occupy a nonexistent, illusory center.





Press Corps Would Like Cheese With That Whine

20 02 2013
The official White House photo of Obama's visit to an N.C. auto parts factory

The official White House photo of Obama’s visit to an N.C. auto parts factory

A kerfuffle broke out this weekend when the White House press corps, frustrated at the lack of access to the president during a golfing trip with Tiger Woods (because, you know, birdies and bogeys are so newsworthy), publicly rebelled, with White House Correspondents Association president Ed Henry calling on the “most transparent administration in history” to be more, well, transparent. “All we’re asking for is a brief exception, quick access, a quick photo-op on the 18th green,” Henry complained. A photo-op on the 18th green – wow, thanks for that, third estate. Then Politico published a remarkably self-serving hand-wringer of a piece detailing Obama’s abilities as a media “puppet master” who eschews hard-hitting national media and relies instead on the White House’s own PR efforts and softball interviews with local radio stations. After admitting that, yeah, all administrations have done this to some degree, Politico whines:

But Obama and his aides have raised it to an art form: The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on “The View”?

Obama’s aides are better at using technology and exploiting the president’s “brand.” They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forums, not just for campaigns, but governing.

As full-time Politico hater Charles Pierce observes acidly at Esquire, “Every sportswriter learns one simple rule in a very quick hurry — namely, that nobody out in your readership cares how hard you think your job is. Therefore, columns about media shuttles being late, or cold food in the press room, or the quality of the bath towels in the headquarters hotels become the object of swift and righteous ridicule on the part of the people who read them. This is a lesson apparently lost on the elite political press.” Even the Times doesn’t quite grasp this truism; during the 2012 election, it ran regular dispatches from the Romney campaign bus detailing reporter Ashley Parker’s struggles with unhealthy chow, a heavy suitcase, and a persistent case of the sniffles.
I’m not sure when the press decided it was entitled to 24/7 access to the president (today the golf course, tomorrow, the Michelle’s underwear drawer?), but Kevin Drum points out that the bigshot anchors and reporters whining about “access” don’t always make good use of that access when they have it. “It’s 2013, guys,” he writes. “Why shouldn’t a president communicate with the public using whatever mediums the public happens to consume? Over the past century, that’s evolved from whistle-stop tours to radio to TV to Facebook, but so what? Why should reporters be unhappy about this?” Pierce adds that the administration is entitled to churn out as many blog posts, official photos and TV packages as it wants — media outlets are under no obligation to use any of it, though Politico bemoans the fact that cash-strapped local stations and papers usually do. “White House handout photos used to be reserved for historically important events — 9/11, or deliberations about war,” said one photographer for Time. Isn’t her beef really with on-the-cheap news organizations that have been skimping on “extras” like photography and foreign coverage for years?
The NYT's shot, from staff photographer Stephen Crowley. Better?

The NYT’s shot, from staff photographer Stephen Crowley. Better?

The short answer is that reporters are worried about their job security. Journalists, unless they make some radical adjustments, can’t mediate the conversation via Facebook the way they can in a traditional TV interview. Their role as intercessors is increasingly threatened — and thus we get melodramatic, doomsday-predicting pieces like Politicos, darkly lamenting the “arguably dangerous development” of the administration becoming “needlessly stingy with information” and keeping “iron-fisted control of access.” When White House spokesperson Jen Psaki explains that the president’s mission is not to keep the press corps happy, she voices the deepest fears of a media establishment that is losing relevance: “The goal is not to satisfy the requester, but doing what is necessary to get into people’s homes and communicate your agenda to the American people.” Of course, Facebook will never take the place of investigative journalism, and a Google+ hangout is never going to unearth unsavory administration secrets. In that sense, the diminishment of traditional media is indeed dangerous. Such scoops, however, rarely depend on a one-on-one sit down with the president. They arrive via old-school techniques like cultivating inside sources and combing public archives on which the official media still have the advantage.

Drum especially calls out Politico’s Mike Allen, who has never asked a really probing question in his life, and comes down on Obama’s “side” of the debate. Drum also directs us to John Cook’s Twitter feed, where the Gawker editor proceeded to tweet a marvelous collection of Allen inquiries from a 2008 presser, including “You talked about some tough decisions — what was the happiest moment you’ve had in this amazing room?” One need only witness the Steve Kroft “60 Minutes” interview — in which the hardest-hitting question was “What do you think the biggest success has been, foreign policy success, of the first term?” — to understand why the White House has decided not even to bother with traditional media.

Given the fawning Kroft interview, this particular paragraph is especially hilarious:

The president has not granted an interview to print reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and others in years. These are the reporters who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions.

Oh, spare me. As Charles Pierce writes at Esquire, “Which of these things is not like the others?” What a list of legacy publications: the newspaper that published the Pentagon Papers, the one that broke the Watergate story, and the six-year old website whose biggest scoop has been . . . . the Herman Cain sexual harrassment scandal? As for “tough, unpredictable questions” — gee, the grilling Allen gave George W. Bush in 2008 about American Idol (“And I wonder who do you think is going to win? Syesha, David Cook, or David Archuleta?”) really made the president sweat.

Real reporting relies more on shoe leather and investigation than one-on-one interviews with the president, in which – no matter how hard-hitting the questions – he is unlikely to say anything controversial or groundbreaking. The guy is not Joe Biden. The truth is, as much as reporters like to see themselves as holding officials’ feet to the fire, interviews are just as stage-managed as the White House Twitter feed. A beat reporter is more likely to get substantial information out of a Congressional aide off the record than from a president reciting rehearsed answers under the lights at a press conference. A headline from the conservative Heritage Foundation is buys into the fantasy of the all-powerful press: “Reporters need to ask White House if Head Start works.” Well, they can ask. The White House will, of course, say it does. You’ll never get anyone to say otherwise, and Arnie Duncan will come armed with selected studies and statistics to back up his talking points.

If members of the media wants to complain about transparency, they should start with policy questions, including Obama’s drone memos and his administration’s unprecedented prosecution of leaks, not harp on who gets to ask the latest uninformative “So what do you think we should do about the sequester?” question. Even correspondent Howard Fineman halfway agrees, tweeting “[Let’s] make sure we are worthy of the access we are not getting. We weren’t going to learn anything useful on the golf course anyway.” Except for maybe Tiger Woods’ score.

The point is, the press shouldn’t complain about a lack of Q&A opportunities until they can come up with some halfway decent Q’s. And they should quit the self-important posturing about revelatory interviews and the importance of sit-downs with national media. If the press corps thinks the White House is stage-managing its reputation, then welcome to the 21st century. We’re not going back to an era before PR shops and brand managers, and as dispiriting as that may be, journalists should get used to it. When correspondent Mark Knoller complains to Politico that “He gives interviews not for our benefit, but to achieve his objective,” he’s hardly describing anything unique about the Obama White House. Politicians don’t talk to the media because they’re lonely and looking for a good heart-to-heart, or because they feel an obligation to bare their souls in service of the First Amendment.

I’m sure journalists see themselves as fighting for access on behalf of the American people – and to the extent that a free society depends on a free press, they’re right. But the idea that the press’s outrage should hold such weight with the administration, that they’re entitled to stalk the president even on the golf course – the outrage seems more about the reporters’ own self-serving interests than about a concern for investigative journalism. Frankly, the American people don’t share the press corps’ outrage, and I find it presumptuous for its members to claim to be angry on our behalf. It overstates, somewhat, the effect of the media. The secrets of the administration’s drone policy were portrayed by the journalism community as a bombshell . . . but 99 percent of the country didn’t look up from their daily lives. Even average citizens are often able to ask more relevant questions, pressing the president on things like gay rights and legalizing marijuana. Dave Weigel writes at Slate:

That was why Ed Henry’s complaints were not endorsed by an angry mob of readers. What exactly are they getting from the White House press corps, when it has access and when it doesn’t? The only media able to cancel out the president’s impressive filibustering skills are Reddit AMAs and Google Hangouts.

Mainstream media is less relevant now, and what really angers the press is that the Obama administration is acknowledging that. Every time the president circumvents the traditional circuit of 60 Minutes and Face the Nation, the old-time media is confronted with the fact that it simply matters less. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook – these things have all conspired to make it matter less. The White House hasn’t caused this shift; it’s only adjusted to it and played it for all it’s worth. That’s more than you can say for some of the dead-tree print outlets complaining about access. “One can rage against this trend or not as one likes, but it’s pretty fundamental,” Slate’s Matt Yglesias notes.

The smaller the number of distribution channels, the more powerful people had to bow to the whims of the powerful people who owned the distribution channels. Today, controlling a distribution channel doesn’t make you as powerful as it used to. That’s good for Kelly Clarkson and Barack Obama, but bad for the White House Correspondents Association.

The world has changed, and we’re not going back. Is that dangerous? Perhaps. But it’s reality. Journalism has to adapt, and Ed Henry in high dudgeon complaining about golf outings won’t accomplish that.