Monday, June 13, 2011

Budgetary Poker

Imagine that the continuing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over raising the debt ceiling were a game of poker. What does it say about the current balance of ideological power between liberals and conservatives that even a sturdy liberal like Michael Tomasky is saying that the best Democrats can do is to put on a brave face while they’re folding their cards? If you’re a Democrat, and especially a liberal Democrat, nothing good (my emphasis):

“We're entering a crucial and potentially decisive period for the Obama administration, which is staring at two really lousy options and has about three weeks to decide how to respond. It can give in to congressional Republicans' demands for trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a debt-ceiling vote—but those are cuts that Ben Bernanke says will damage the economy. Or it can fight the Republicans and dare them to refuse to raise the limit. But these Republicans are crazy enough to do just that; sure it would cripple the economy and hurt ordinary people, but the fact that it would also hurt President Obama is the only thing that counts for today's GOP. Between these two options, the administration has to choose the first. But it can do so sheepishly or aggressively, and which approach it takes will make a lot of difference to its alienated liberal base, and, I'd argue, to independent voters as well.

"There's no question that Republicans are sitting in the catbird's seat. . . .  The liberal base is awfully dispirited right now, and independents think, not entirely incorrectly, that Republicans are leading the president around by the nose. [Obama] can show some spine to both groups by letting America know that this debt-hostage situation isn't his idea of responsible governance—and by saying that his primary concern is jobs. If the administration cuts a deal that gives into 75 percent of GOP demands and he hails it as a victory for deficit reduction, it's going to be a bummer of a summer for the Americans on whom Obama's reelection fundamentally depends.”
Why is Tomasky conceding this high-stakes hand to Republicans? It’s not that he thinks that Democrats don’t have any high cards to play. He reminds us that polling data suggests that voters care more about jobs than the deficit.  And he might have added that other polls show that most voters aren’t all that averse to raising (other people’s) taxes. So you’d think that a critical mass of voters would be open to the argument that Republican efforts to reduce the deficit will cost jobs and social services we can’t now afford to lose and that, therefore, tax increases need to be part of any debt-ceiling deal. Yet Tomasky thinks that Democrats are obliged to fold their cards anyway.

As far as I can see, that could only be for one or both of two reasons: either the deck is somehow stacked against the Democrats from the start and/or Democrats are playing their cards less effectively than Republicans. Tomasky alludes to an explanation of the first sort when he complains that it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate. True enough, but he neglects to add that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. The last time I looked, it takes a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto. So the idea that Democrats lack the institutional leverage to hold their own at the table with Republicans is more than a little far-fetched.

So if Democrats are obliged to fold their cards now, it must have something to do with how they’re playing them. The trouble, Tomasky suggests, is that Democrats lack the fortitude to call the Republicans' bluff about letting the government default on its obligations because they may be crazy, and socially irresponsible, enough not to be bluffing. Republican “craziness” and “social irresponsibility,” of course, are just other words for "conviction." Bluffing only works when the person being bluffed contends with the possibility that the bluffer really likes his cards.

It’s perfectly obvious, not only to Democratic negotiators but to anyone who has been paying attention, that Republicans really believe in their budgetary priorities and are willing to stake their political future on them. The fact that the Republican House passed, and all but five Senate Republicans voted for, the Paul Ryan budget is proof of that.  Democrats refrained from acting on their budgetary priorities (e.g., by extending the Bush's middle-class tax cuts without extending cuts for people making over $250K) when they controlled all elected branches of government and enjoyed a veto-proof Senate majority.  Moreover, they haven't dared to reveal what their budgetary priorities are for over two years.  Could there be a better demonstration of Democrats' lack of conviction?  No wonder Republicans don't take the Democrats' budgetary bluffs seriously.

That leaves Tomasky in the desperate position of counseling Obama to make a show of having budgetary convictions that he and the Democratic Party plainly don’t have. I wish Tomasky would explain to me why anyone should be impressed by Obama’s talking the talk at the very moment when he and the rest of the Democratic Party are declining to walk the walk.


Anonymous said...

Exactly right!

Anonymous said...

Well put. It seems as if Obama and the Dems are doing everything other than addressing the real problem. For example, Obama went to Puerto Rico to shore up his chances in Florida. It seems their strategy is avoidance and changing the subject.