March 30, 2011
-- by Dave Johnson
Bloggers always wonder why Democrats couldn’t get anything done even when they had a solid majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, while Republicans get everything they want even when they are in the minority. Take the current budget negotiations, for example.
A few weeks ago the Congress passed and the President signed yet another round of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby greatly increasing the deficits. Now these same geniuses are engaged in cuts-only budget negotiations with military spending largely off the table.
What about the country and our people? Every poll shows that the public wants the same thing that economists say we need: increases in spending on the things that grow our economy, cuts in military and tax increases on the rich and big corporations (2/3 of which pay no taxes at all) -- the very items that are "off the table" in the budget negotiations!
The country needs and the people demand spending increases on the things government does for We, the People, tax increases on the wealthy and a massive downsizing of the huge, vast, stratospheric, unbelievable, shocking, nonsensical, terrifying, extreme, astonishing, gut-wrenching military budget, the biggest drag on our economy today. We spend more on military than every other country combined and our businesses and people and economy have to scrape to pay for that while our competitors do not.
How bad are our negotiators, when the public is solidly behind the right thing to do, and they are negotiating with a starting position that is the opposite of good policy and public demand?
The Right Starting Position
The first rule of negotiating is to pick the right starting position, understanding that you will have to give some things up to reach agreement. At the very least Democrats should start with the best policies for the public, and negotiate from there. The problem is, they don't.
In the stimulus battle the President's economists (and progressive bloggers) were calling for much more stimulus than the President began negotiations with. They said the economy needed at least $1.2 trillion, but the President's starting position was much lower. And to top it off, the President then just threw in that much of the stimulus package would be tax cuts, which leave behind nothing but debt! He said he did it to attract Repubican votes. How many did he get? The policy result of this negotiating strategy was too little stimulus that led to a political rout.
In the health care reform effort the starting position was that Medicare-For-All -- the right policy for the country and the economy, and the position the public supported -- was so far "off the table" that people advocating for it at committee hearings were ejected and arrested! And that was done by the Democrats, with the Democrats in control of the House and with 60 votes in the Senate! The end result of this effort to do something about the damage caused to our people and our economy by the predatory insurance giants was a law ordering us to purchase insurance from ... the predatory insurance giants.
In the current budget battle the starting position should be the right policy position: we need to spend more to create jobs and take care of our people, and to boost the economy to grow our way out of the deficits. But instead our Democratic negotiators start with a budget freeze -- offered up unilaterally -- and Republicans begin by demanding $30 billion in cuts. Then the Tea Party (also known as "the Koch brothers") demanded an increase in cuts to $60 billion, and now we are headed to a "deal" cutting the budget by $30 billion which is the Republican starting position! The Democratic negotiators conceded entirely, winning nothing. The policy result will be a disaster for our people and our economy.
Make A Hero Out Of Boehner?
Worse yet, in the political press this kind of deal makes John Boehner the hero of the process! He wins a deal with $30 billion in cuts, passed by corporate/Blue Dog Democrats plus some Republicans, but no Tea Party votes. Boehner becomes the hero of the "center" and the Washington elite will celebrate. But the public and the economy loses.
DC's Conservative Information Environment
Democrats seem to think the public wants corporate/conservative policies enacted, when polls show they do not. How could this be possible? Polls show that the public wants tax increases on the wealthy and cuts in military spending, not cuts in entitlements and the other things We the People (government) does for us and our economy. And these are the right policies. Why is there such a gap between what we want and need, and what our leaders think we want?
Policymakers are up against a massive corporate/conservative lobbying machine designed to influence legislation. If you live and work in DC you experience a different "information environment" than the rest of us. The main channels of information there are very much influenced by the corporate/conservative machine, making it difficult to find a non-conservative perspective. To break through this you first have to understand this. Then you have to make an effort to get information that does not pass through these gatekeepers. But if you are doing almost anything in Congress you are busy, so it gets harder and harder to make the effort (if you even know you need to) to get past the corporate/conservative worldview that is being handed to you.
There is no massively-funded objective information machine countering the corporate/conservative information machine, and protecting our democracy. (And they are working to defund even PBS.)
DC is the policy target so DC is the information target. The ads on DC TV cable news are targeted at the DC political crowd. Right-wing dominates radio, almost no alternate perspective can be found. Getting on the Metro you are handed an Examiner so you can read about how the country wants corporate/conservative solutions to problems. You pull up the Politico smartphone edition as you ride in because it is formatted and timed for that. (You should be reading Progressive Breakfast, so sign up here.) Congressional offices are saturated with corporate/conservative astroturf designed to look like constituents are calling and writing and demanding conservative policies. If you pull up information from Wikipedia it is edited by paid activists. Even some comments at many blogs you might read are left by paid commenters.
Billions upon billions are at stake, and the huge investment made in communicating a conservative position to policymakers and their staff pays off.
Root Of The Budget Problem: Wrong Assumption About Cause Of Deficits
The root of today's budget-negotiating problem isn’t as much the deficit as the public’s and the policymaker's misunderstanding of the cause of the deficit. Since President Obama took office there has been an unanswered drumbeat that Obama and “Democrat spending” are the reason we have a deficit. Every right-wing talk show, blog, TV pundit, op-ed, etc. starts from this position - Obama caused the massive deficits. (Did you hear Limbaugh going on about that today? And if you are not monitoring Limbaugh you are not paying attention to what they're telling the public.)
If the assumption going in to budget negotiations is that "Democratic spending" is the problem, then the solution naturally is going to be to cut spending. But what about the harm this mistaken approach will do to people and the economy? When even the starting position doesn't take that into account, what kind of results will we see?
The fact is that President Bush's last budget year had a $1.4 trillion deficit. It was conservative policies and cleaning up after the results of those policies that brought us these massive deficits. Conservatives have tricked people into thinking this was President Obama's fault. President Obama has actually reduced the deficits below Bush levels.
Playing By The Right's Rules
The typical Democratic pragmatic approach is to say we already lost that argument in the public mind, so we have to go with what the public thinks. That is the pollster-dominant way of doing politics. This is the old 1990s approach that didn’t yet recognize that there was a well-funded, strategic corporate/right “echo chamber” and “noise machine” out there that used “Overton Window” tactics to shift everything to the right.
But playing by those rules has now allowed politics to shift so far to the right that even Ronald Reagan would be called a RINO and couldn’t win a Republican primary today. The result is that the politics and the policy needs diverge.
The Democrats need to start negotiations with the right policies for the people and the economy. This is the right politics, too, because it happens to also be what the public wants.
Posted by Dave Johnson at March 30, 2011 3:14 PM
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