Last week I wrote about deficit politics
, when I argued that it accrued little, if any, political capital for Democrats (the idea had actually been planted in my head by Andy Stern when we talked,
a couple weeks ago). There were lots of interesting comments in the discussion, and since that time there have been many good diaries on the subject (including Curt Matlock's
from today, and Steve in Sacto's
in direct response to my post). One of the more interesting comments I received came to me over email from Bill at Liberal Oasis
: I wrote a paper in college about 10 years ago, analyzing the role of the deficit in the '92 elections. Basically, attacking the deficit typically doesn't help score political points -- it's too abstract, it's not clear how it impacts people's lives. (Dukakis got no traction out of it, for example).
But it is a symbol of mismanagement and incompetence. And if the economy is in a downturn, as it was in 1992, it's an easy thing to point to as evidence that the government is handling the economy poorly (even though the correlation between the two is not necessarily that direct).
Right now, the economy isn't seen to be as bad as it was in 1992, making deficit attacks of limited, short-term, value. However, there is long-term value, to solidify the notion that Dems are more fiscally responsible. We went through a whole decade of people believing the opposite in the 1980s, and it's lot easier to have the upper hand here. When the economy hits the next rough patch, Dems will be very well positioned.
2. But you're right that to just make the deficit attack, without coupling it with a liberal argument for responsible, responsive government, leaves Dems vulnerable to "small government" arguments. I think you have to hit these cuts too, make it clear who is being hurt, make it clear that the tax cuts are to blame. Being fiscally responsible cuts two ways: not running up debt, and not screwing over the people.
I talked about how we need to approach Bush's budget cuts back in Dec., in this post: http://www.liberaloasis.com/archives/121904.htm#122304
I generally agree with this, although now that the era of small government is over
and the nation is quite receptive to a positive articulation of the role of government, I think that it will be even less effective than usual. Thus, although I admit deficit talk should have some place in the broader Democratic political attack against Republicans, I would still like to see it decentralized at a line of attack. Unfortunately, the DCCC new chair, Rahm Emanuel, disagrees
: To those who see a parallel between the Clintons' ill-fated health-care plan and Bush's hara-kiri over Social Security, Emanuel cautions that defeating Bush's plan may not mean nirvana for Democrats. Back then, the country was clamoring for health care and punished Clinton with the loss of the House and Senate when he didn't deliver. Now, polls show
people don't want a radical overhaul of Social Security, so they may not punish Bush if he doesn't deliver.
The budget is another matter. The revelation this week about the exploding costs of Medicare hurt Bush's credibility and makes his estimates on the costs of private accounts suspect. His entire budget is a work of fiction. "It's the mendacity budget--deceitful and meaningless," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Conference, home to centrist Democrats. Deceitful because it leaves out the cost of the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan, omits the cost of fixing a glitch in the tax code with the Alternative Minimum Tax that will cost billions and includes no mention of the transitional trillion for Bush's Social Security plan. Meaningless because it's an exercise in futility; it's going nowhere.
It is hard to tell how much of this strategy is Emanuel and how much is Clift, but not being big into deficit politics, I disagree with it no matter whose idea it is. I mean, for the love of God, please tell me we are not going to run on reducing the deficit yet again! During the campaign, I thought one of Kerry's biggest platform weaknesses was repeatedly saying that he would roll back taxes on the top 1% (a good and popular idea--attack greed), so that he could help reduce the budget deficit (way too abstract--does anyone really care?). Why take a popular idea and then declare you will use it to pay for an abstraction that does not offer an apparent, direct improvement on people's lives? It makes Democrats look detached and out of touch. What Kerry should have done is say he would roll back tax cuts on the top 1% so that he could improve people's lives by reducing the cost of health care, improving day care and public schools, and to protect Social Security from irresponsible Republicans.
The notion that we should move in 2006 to punish Bush for his mendacity and irresponsibility is fine with me, but I remain firmly of the belief that campaigning on his mendacity and irresponsibility over the budget deficit is, at best, weak and ineffectual politics. I would prefer if we called Bush a liar and irresponsible when it comes to people's actual lives, not red tape. It is thus very distressing to see us walking down this path yet again. Both Dean and Emanuel are good leadership choices for the netroots, but I worry that their over-emphasis on bookkeeping abstractions will prevent us from providing a compelling economic agenda that will really excite the nation and help to carve out a new Democratic majority.
Remember that Democrats do not just need to be viewed as the fiscally responsible party, but as the party of good planning and wise investment that leads to broad prosperity and a better future. After all, some version of "broad prosperity" and "better future" should be four words of the ten-word Democratic elevator pitch ("better future" should be the two-word Democratic pitch). Broad prosperity and a better future are created through good planning, but good planning is not encapsulated by balancing the books alone. Similarly, being responsible does not mean you are a good planner in and of itself. People need to believe you are not only responsible, but that you have a vision that will help improve their lives. If we talk too much about the deficit, we may come off as responsible, but also as uncaring, disconnected, and out of touch.