Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 16, 2011

A NEW STANDARD FOR 'SERIOUSNESS'.... The political establishment's preoccupation with deficit reduction -- as opposed to, say, job creation -- is annoying enough on its own. What's worse is the presupposed fixes to the nation's fiscal problems.

For years, the standard for establishment credibility has been pretty straightforward: policymakers who want to cut Social Security and Medicare are considered "serious." Those who don't are labeled "irresponsible." Those in former group get invited onto Sunday shows and receive praise in David Broder columns. Those in the latter receive establishment scorn.

This frame appears to be evolving, but not in a good way. Dave Weigel noted yesterday that Republicans have begun aggressively incorporating the word "leadership" into their talking points. The point isn't subtle -- if President Obama doesn't agree to cuts, he's not only lacking in "credibility" and "seriousness," he's not a "leader," either.

I get the argument. The White House doesn't want to cut Social Security and Medicare, the pitch goes, but if Obama is going to turn around our fiscal fortunes, he's going to have to go along with the GOP and the establishment, and do what he doesn't want to do. That this would involve the president thumbing his nose at his base would only make this more appealing to Republicans and give it more weight with D.C. insiders.

All of this is misguided, and it's a reminder that the discourse is overdue for a detour. As Jonathan Cohn noted today, those who sincerely want to reduce the deficit are going to have to "talk about taxes."

With unemployment still too high and growth still too low, I'm not sure why budget deficits and the federal debt are suddenly the exclusive focus of our political conversation. But a serious conversation about how to stabilize the government's finances is now taking place, in the media and behind closed doors in Congress.

At least, it's supposed to be serious.... In the long run, we can't stabilize federal finances entirely by letting the Bush tax cuts lapse. That's probably going to require some spending reductions, too, primarily on health care. But, as both Weigel and my colleague Alex Hart have pointed out, it's ridiculous to have a conversation about balancing the budget that won't even contemplate higher taxes.

Quite right. In 2001, Republicans were handed a spectacular fiscal future -- they had huge surpluses, the debt was being paid off the first time in four decades, and the various debt clocks had to be shut down (they hadn't been programmed to run backwards). They proceeded to slash taxes, and deficits soon followed. Bush-era tax breaks aren't the only factor driving the budget shortfalls, but they're a major culprit.

(Oh, and incidentally, they failed as an economic policy anyway, failing to create the millions of jobs promised by GOP proponents when approved.)

Is it so unreasonable to consider a more responsible policy -- one that moves away from what we know didn't work?

I'm not saying deficit reduction should be a high priority right now; I happen to believe the opposite. But if the budget shortfall is going to be on the to-do list, there are only a couple of options in shrinking the deficit -- the government can spend less, take in more, or some combination of the two.

Republicans argue that the debt is threatening the fabric of our civilization, but they refuse to even consider one of the two ways to solve the problem. With that in mind, it's time for a new standard -- to be considered "serious" and "credible," policymakers are going to have to accept the fact that tax increases must be part of the fiscal mix.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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The GOP can complain about what Obama does or doesn't want to do when they pony up a plan of their own.

Budgets start in the House.

Leaders lead, not whine.

Posted by: bignose on February 16, 2011 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Whether it's bombing brown people or making sure those who have little here have even less, the test of "seriousness" for the American political class is the willingness to inflict suffering on those weaker than themselves.
We are led by evil people intent on making us an evil country.

Posted by: JMG on February 16, 2011 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

The Republicans constantly hammer Democrats as being for "tax and spend", with the implication that the Democrats want to raise taxes, and thus raise revenue so they can spend it.

However, this narrative completely contradicts the Republican myth that tax cuts lead to higher revenue. By painting the Democrats as "tax and spend", they are admitting that higher taxes lead to higher revenues.

They are also admitting that lowering taxes does not raise revenue, since if it were true, then Democrats would be lowering taxes in order to get more money to spend.

I know, I know, logic doesn't matter. But I'm surprised I haven't seen more chatter about this contradiction that has been going on for years.

Posted by: phred on February 16, 2011 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

The Dems need to frame this correctly. Don't "let the Bush tax cuts expire"- that plays into the GOP frame, under which the Bush cuts were an objectively good thing, reality aside. What they should say is, "return the tax rates to where they were during the prosperous Clinton years." Better, albeit probably impossible, say "we should return the rates to where they were when the US had the strongest economy in human history." That would be the 1950s, when the top marginal rate never dropped below 90%.


Posted by: Zorro on February 16, 2011 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

I'll believe our MSM is 'serious' when they start to 'seriously' hold convervatives feet to the fire about tax increases as a way out of the deficit, instead of always siding with them on tax cuts and cutting entitlement programs for poeple who need them now more than ever after 30 years of the Reagan De-evolution.


Posted by: c u n d gulag on February 16, 2011 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen wrote: "... policymakers who want to cut Social Security and Medicare are considered 'serious'."

Well, DUH.

Inventing a pretext for cutting Social Security and Medicare is the whole and entire point of the fraudulent "debate" about "deficit reduction".

And the Republicans are deadly serious about it.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 16, 2011 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

This whole Republican rigamarole would be less annoying if we hadn't already seen this movie, in the form of the runup to the Iraq War.

Then, as now, we have the Republicans on record as to their agenda, and yet the so-called "liberal media" pretends they act in good faith when they present a series of shifting justifications -- under the guise of "seriousness" -- while, as Steve points out, refusing even to contemplate courses of action other than their own stated agenda.

If the Republicans are serious about deficit reduction -- and from the bush years, we know they really aren't -- they can talk tax increases and cuts to military spending. If they don't, it's they who aren't serious, no matter what David Brooks is paid to say.

Posted by: Gregory on February 16, 2011 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Inventing a pretext for cutting Social Security and Medicare is the whole and entire point of the fraudulent "debate" about "deficit reduction".

Quoted for truth.

And I might add that Republicans -- Grover Norquist, for one -- have been extremely frakkin' candid about that being their agenda.

Posted by: Gregory on February 16, 2011 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

. . . to be considered "serious" and "credible," policymakers are going to have to accept the fact that tax increases must be part of the fiscal mix.

And policymakers who refuse to consider tax increases while still railing about the seriousness of the debt shall be considered "dickheads".

Or Republicans. Same-same.

Posted by: David Bailey on February 16, 2011 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Being right and being seen as credible or serious in the media and Washington circles have nothing to do with each other. Otherwise you'd have people like Al Gore (remember the lockbox?) and Paul Krugman making policy instead of banging their heads against the wall while watching from the sidelines as the "serious" people ruin the country. In order to be taken seriously you have to tow the Republican line. (or at least be willing to criticize liberals)

Posted by: atlliberal on February 16, 2011 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

the jist of this piece by Steve Benen appears to presuppose the idea that the GOP is actually interested in "fixing" the "economy", the one they broke. I submit that their interest is just the opposite. We've heard GOP leadership time and again state that ending the Obama presidency is their #1 goal. What better way than to let the mess the GOP began under George W. Bush continue, and add to it at every turn (which they are doing as I write). At a point "policymakers are going to have to accept the fact " that ruining the nation in order to re-build it in their grand, and severely flawed, plan is their object. Maybe this is a harsh assessment, but I'm waiting to hear a more sensible explanation for the GOP's current course.

Posted by: T2 on February 16, 2011 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

[Obama is] going to have to go along with the GOP and the establishment, and do what he doesn't want to do. -- Gospel according to Repubs

Reminds me of an old Polish rhyme:
I stanela sprawa na tem
Jak pogodzic dupe z batem
(and the matter got stuck on the issue of how to reconcile the arse and the whip)

Vis "talking about taxes", as Jonathan Cohn (link to TNR)suggests. Not so long ago -- a week or so -- one of the Repub fiscal geniuses stated outright that we don't have a problem with revenue, only with spending. And nobody bothered to contradict him. Not MSM, not Dems. I know that it gets frustrating to debunk their lies only to have them repeat the same BS 5 minutes later but, if we don't even *try*...

Posted by: exlibra on February 16, 2011 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Arguing with what the Republicans say is a tactic for losers. They do not say what they mean. They are trying to engineer a fiscal melt-down while convincing the public that the only solution is to eliminate Social Security and Medicare. Since this might not happen until the next Republican administration, in the short term the Republicans want to choke off the recovery so that Obama will not be re-elected - hence all the talk about reducing government debt.

The Republicans are toying with the destruction of the American economy and America's place in the world to achieve their seemingly strange goal.

But there is an explanation - let us not forget who is behind all this: it is Murdoch and a small number of other billionaires who are funding the Republican Party and the teabaggers. They don't pay much in taxes, but anything is too much for them. And they don't care one bit about what happens to anyone else.

Posted by: edb on February 16, 2011 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

When our political leaders rely on less than honest rhetoric, our political system is suffering from too many lies, and cannot be fixed.

Here's a novel idea for the next election cycle: Demand honest candidates from our two major parties, and if falling short on such a demand, keep our eyes on those dishonest ones who get elected, and show them the door when their dishonesty shows its ugly head!

Seriously, anyone who says they are concerned about our deficit, and decries a 4% tax increase for the top 5% of our population as unbriddled socialism should be laughed out of the room, tarred and feathered, and run out of town for being so incredibly assinine!

But will common sense ever prevail in our political epicenter? Probably not with so many vested interests gaining access to policy makers and so many elected officials who are, plainly, not too smart! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on February 16, 2011 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

"...the government can spend less, take in more, or some combination of the two." Steve Benen

Isn't that EXACTLY what President Obama's proposed Budget does? So that means there's one intelligent person in DC.
Let's hope "intelligence" is infectious...

Posted by: Doug on February 16, 2011 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

"We also keep hearing from our Democrat friends . . . "

Experience teaches that whenever the speaker starts with "Democrat" when they should be saying "Democratic," listening to what follows never repays the effort.

Posted by: Joel on February 16, 2011 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

bignose, you're exactly right, and as someone who teaches the Constitution this bit of the debate has been maddening. Either House Republicans can get their caucus together and pass the budget they claim to want, or they can't. In either case, what Obama says he will sign is utterly immaterial. I can't stand it when e.g. AP reports "Obama cuts, but Republicans demand more." Well, R's ought to be able to not just demand, but ENACT legislation...

Posted by: Ron Mexico on February 17, 2011 at 6:42 AM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised Steve didn't mention that Gov. Walker has also threatened to deploy the Wisconsin National Guard if the workers strike or if there's any "unrest".

Posted by: 3reddogs on February 17, 2011 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK



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