Tough Choices

Over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a mostly excellent take on the Wisconsin recall and what it means for American politics. The short story is that economic distress will result in a zero-sum politics, where both sides vie for the greatest gains while doing as much as possible to block their opponents. He exaggerates the extent to which this is true on the Democratic side—Democrats haven’t pushed laws to keep Republicans from voting, nor have they used legislation to attack core GOP constituencies—but the point is well taken. Politics has become hyper-partisan and totalistic, and while Douthat doesn’t say it, you can trace this to the Republican Party’s utter disregard for institutional norms (see: the filibuster).

The problem with Douthat’s argument comes at the end, where—in a bold bit of projection—he praises Republican innovation and accuses the Democratic Party of policy nihilism:

The House Republicans have spent the past two years taking tough votes on entitlement reform, preparing themselves for an ambitious offensive should 2012 deliver the opportunity to cast those same votes and have them count. The Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have failed to even pass a budget: There is no Democratic equivalent of Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprint, no Democratic plan to swallow hard and raise middle class taxes the way Republicans look poised to swallow hard and overhaul Medicare. Indeed, there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment, beyond a resounding “No!” to whatever conservatism intends to do. [Emphasis mine]

I’m not sure how to read this; it’s more than clear—from the 111th Congress—that the Democratic Party has a clear and ambitious program for the United States. From 2009 to 2010, Democrats signed several major initiatives into law: a large infusion of short-term stimulus spending, a bill to reform the financial industry and prevent a recurrence of the Great Recession, and a massive bill that—among other things—bolsters Medicaid, reduces Medicare spending, ensures universal health coverage, sets the stage for a private insurance market, funds a variety of cost-control measures, and attempts to put the United States on a long-term fiscal footing.

This is incredibly ambitious—Douthat says as much earlier in the post—and more importantly, ongoing: under four more years of an Obama administration, Democrats will work to implement these policies. In addition, they still hope to sign laws on climate change—building upon the cap and trade legislation passed in 2009—immigration reform, and tax reform. It’s simply ridiculous for Douthat to say that “there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment,” especially when Republicans devoted themselves to constant obstruction throughout the 111th Congress.

In fact, the only thing less convincing than that declaration is the claim that Republicans have “swallowed hard” with Medicare reform and offered something unique with the Ryan blueprint. A privatized Medicare system has been a conservative goal for decades; it’s hard to call something a tough choice when it’s exactly what you want. Likewise, as many analysts have noted over the last year, the Ryan budget is not a plan for fiscal stability; it calls for Congress to raise military spending, slash income taxes, eliminate the capital gains tax, and end the estate tax. To pay for this, it offers cuts to existing social services, including Medicaid. In other words, it’s a conservative wish list, not a tough choice.

Indeed, I don’t understand how you can talk about difficult decisions in politics without mentioning the Affordable Care Act. In passing Obamacare, Democrats enraged their liberal base (by dropping a public option), energized conservatives, and alienated independents. Obama took a costly hit to his political capital, and Republicans won a historic victory in the House of Representatives.

Douthat is right to say that Democrats have avoided tough decisions, particularly on taxes. There’s no way to sustain Democratic commitments without higher middle-class taxes, and Democrats need to admit as much. Still, when looking over the past three years, one thing is clear: Republicans say they want to make tough choices, but Democrats have actually made tough choices. It’s misleading for Douthat to assert otherwise.


Douthat is using a standard Republican rhetorical tool - taking its own sin and projecting it onto the other side. "We're not the 'Party of No' - they're the 'Party of No'".

Douthat knows the difference between a budget and a spending bill, and he knows both why we don't have a budget and why it doesn't actually matter. Does he explain: Nope. Instead it's another right-wing talking point, from his lips to your ear. Like Fred Hiatt's recent self-embarrassment about the budget, and as "Beltway pundits" are inclined to argue, the gist is that the Democrats are to blame for not offering a budget deal along the lines of the unofficial Bowles-Simpson report, and that (well, yeah) the President did exactly what they just said the Democrats didn't do, but it's the Democrats' fault they wanted to actually balance the budget and included the tax increases necessary to do so - something they should have known Republicans could never accept.

One of my problems with reading Douthat is the inevitable let-down, where he seems to be on the right track and then lets loose with... if I were to give him the benefit of the doubt, I would say "ignorance".

I saw him on a talking head show a while back where he was discussing the fact that @45% of Americans pay no federal income tax. He didn't surprise me by pointing out the fact that most of them do pay federal tax - payroll taxes - and that most of those who do not are retired. But he seemed to be headed in a promising direction, pointing out that it was Reagan, and to some extent (and for different reasons) Bush, who removed that tax burden.

Remember, back in Reagan's day, we wanted to "get government off of people's backs". Too many people paid federal taxes. It was a Republican bragging point that they removed so many Americans from the federal income tax rolls. Douthat's set-up led me to believe that's where he was headed - an admission that the status quo results from deliberate Republican policy and that it's a good thing.

Alas, what did he instead argue? That Democrats don't give Republicans credit for that, and aren't willing to admit that poor people need to pay more tax if we're going to balance the budget. To the extent that the former is true, it would be because the current generation of Republicans doesn't deserve credit for that - Bush would have been happy to only cut taxes for the rich, but he needed some window dressing. But beyond the caution that we don't want a tax increase to worsen or prolong the nation's economic problems, and that we shouldn't raise taxes on people who can't afford it, the most common position I encounter from the left is to let the Bush tax cuts expire - even though most taking that position will, themselves, end up paying higher taxes.

Alas, the same sort of financial pressures that hit Members of Congress - you don't get special interest money, and you don't get invited to their cocktail and dinner parties, unless you cater to the special interests - also applies to pundits. You don't get the book club deals that turn your latest scribblings into a best seller. You don't get five to six figure speaker fees. When you read David Brooks or some other national columnist bragging about a dinner with powerful politicians and opinion makers, you can get a sense of their values and what drives their more hackish moments. Few people are immune to that - which is in no part why Washington is such a mess and "Beltway pundits" are... what they are.

"Douthat is using a standard Republican rhetorical tool - taking its own sin and projecting it onto the other side. "We're not the 'Party of No' - they're the 'Party of No'"."

Exactly. It's like when they recently tried to say, "We're not waging a war against women, the DEMOCRATS are waging a war against women." Even though that doesn't make a lick of sense.

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