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August 01, 2011 5:00 PM The contrarian defense

By Steve Benen

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not fond of the debt-reduction agreement reached yesterday. I’m generally more inclined to blame the hostage-takers (congressional Republicans) than the one who paid the ransom (President Obama), but aside from assigning blame, but like lefties everywhere, I haven’t found much to like about this deal.

But with nearly every center-left writer offering the same kind of criticisms, I suppose it’s worth noting the contrarians: lefties who don’t mind the deal as much (or at least, pieces making the case that the left shouldn’t mind the deal that much).

Time’s Jay Newton-Small, for example, isn’t known for being a liberal, but she noted “five things for liberals to like in the debt-ceiling deal.” JNS concluded, “In a world where the Tea Party didn’t exist, would this be a good bill for Democrats? Absolutely not. But considering that the trigger, commission, two-step process and discretionary budget cuts could’ve been a LOT worse — and actually were in Boehner’s version of the bill — this deal will be easier to swallow.”

The NYT’s Nate Silver, who is progressive, certainly doesn’t seem crazy about the debt agreement, arguing, “If Democrats read the fine print on the debt deal struck by President Obama and Congressional leaders, they’ll find that it’s a little better than it appears at first glance.”

First, the timing: the cuts are heavily back-loaded, so the deal is unlikely to have much direct effect on the economy in 2012…. The bill, in short, is not likely to have profound effect on the recovery in the near-term.

And what about the cuts themselves? Silver emphasizes the burden on the Pentagon budget.

If you’re a Democrat and you must accede to $1.5 trillion in cuts — and that’s literally the situation that Democrats will find themselves in if the deal passes through Congress — it’s going to be hard to do better than this $1.5 trillion in cuts. They are very heavily loaded with defense cuts, while containing few changes to entitlement programs or to programs which benefit the poor.

What’s more, Jon Chait is on board with this sort of thinking: “Obama should have avoided the hostage scenario, but once he blundered into it, he managed to escape on relatively favorable terms.”

Salon’s War Room has a piece arguing Obama was left with no other choices; Sam Youngman has a piece in The Hill pointing to the positives for liberals in the agreement, and readers have sent in other items, like this one, that are circulating today, arguing this deal could be worse.

Ultimately, none of the defenses of the deal are wrong or misleading. They’re pointing to real provisions that are in the bill that make the larger package less offensive, and I’m glad those measures survived the negotiations.

But whether one considers them positive improvements or merely a little sugar to make nasty medicine taste a little better is, I suppose, largely a matter of expectations and standards.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Dennis on August 01, 2011 5:05 PM:

    We got in this predicament because a lot of Democrats and Progressives stayed home last year on Election Day 2010. Many of us didn't think the stimulus was large enough and were unhappy with health care reform since it didn't contain a public option. If the 2008 voters had gone to the polls last year, the House would've remained in Democratic hands and Nancy Pelosi would still be the Speaker. We wouldn't have had to go through this default crisis created by the House GOP. My message to my Progressive friends is let's get to work if we want to take our country back. We need to turn out the same people who voted in 2008 next year and take back the House, re-elect President Obama and maintain control of the Senate. If we do that, we will hold the advantage in future negotiations over the federal budget and national priorities.

  • golack on August 01, 2011 5:08 PM:

    And if it's not as bad (for Democrats) as originally feared, could any Republican vote for it????

    Maybe it would be better to wait until it passes before commenting....the gun may not be pointed at the dog's head, but the kidnapper isn't disarmed...

  • August on August 01, 2011 5:09 PM:

    Most analysis is mired in seeing this as a policy negotiation rather than understanding that Obama just successfully marshaled democratic (little d) forces to avert an existential threat to the global economy.

    With far righties like Erick Erickson and far lefties like Peter Daou all cheering on a default with the bizarre notion that a smoking economic crater makes for a stronger negotiating hand (a belief I liken to Underpants Gnome logic), and the Teaparty unwilling or unable to understand the ramifications of threatening to hit a red nuclear launch button (this was never a hostage situation, this was Mutually Assured Destruction against an irrational opponent), the fact that we get to punt most of the painful offerings until after 2012, and got the crazy person away from the button, we should look on this as a win. For civilization.

    My apologies for the run-on sentence, but it was warranted.

  • Fang on August 01, 2011 5:11 PM:

    At times I think Obama's strategy is A) do what he can, B) prevent the word disasters, while C) waiting for a saner crop of people to get elected to congress. I disagree with him on things, but I'm honestly not sure I could do better in this environment.

    So after analyzing this bill, there's some suck, but I don't think it's a cave to the right, so much as a some gimmies and a ton of face-saving Kabuki-dance government. It's also such a mess I think anyone could work around it.

    But what stands is - more and better democrats and more public action.

  • mcc on August 01, 2011 5:13 PM:

    It doesn't really matter whether any of us like the debt ceiling bill or not. What matters is whether you have a better way out of the crisis than this. You don't. If there was a better way out then the people angry about the bill wouldn't be reduced to assigning Obama imaginary new 14th amendment powers so they can complain he's not using them.

  • Luke Coley on August 01, 2011 5:14 PM:

    I agree with you, August. Best thing about this episode is that the hostage survived (albeit with an injury or two) and is free (at least for a year and a half).

  • gus on August 01, 2011 5:20 PM:

    I'm gonna wait until this is over with before looking for reasons why.
    At this point, no matter how certain it is to pass, it has yet to pass.

    So much of this charade has been played out in backrooms and in public that other than the House vote on Boehner's bill, the pre-emptive vote from the Senate, I haven't heard a peep about committee votes or anything. It's been about three months of talking about sausage making. And, it still isn't done. Was there even one hearing on this?

    Was it just that deficit committee from a few years ago and Biden's meetings? Was that as legislative as it got?

    Anyway, I do think Obama could have turned the table over and forced the issue of a clean bill on the debt limit alone. He could have left the other stuff for next months(!) budget battle.

    He had other choices. And, obviously, there are congresspeople who will exercise their choices soon enough. We'll see how that goes. I find it hard to understand how those people think though.

  • Bob O'Reilly on August 01, 2011 5:22 PM:

    Here is the lesson. If you want real change you need to elect a congress -- both houses -- that are liberal. Vote in the primary, volunteer, donate. Vote in the general, volunteer, donate.

    In general there is better chance of liberal legislation being enacted if a Democrat is elected -- even if that condidate is not perfect on every issue. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Vote.

  • jjm on August 01, 2011 5:22 PM:

    I was furious about this at first, but looked at closely, it's almost ho-hum.

    Backloaded cuts -- things could change between now and then if people actually turn out to vote...

    And in my view, though everyone is laughing at the WH suggestion that the GOP will think twice before using these antics and explosiveness again I tend to agree: the TP / GOP shot their wad on this one and it got them...what, exactly?

  • kindness on August 01, 2011 5:27 PM:

    This search for positives for liberals needs perspective.

    Maybe you should start with Democratic control of the Senate and the Executive branch.

    Then you should sell the crap out of this shit sandwich to all the liberals out there. See, perspective.

  • Anonymous on August 01, 2011 5:28 PM:

    Important footnote:

    The Progressive stalwart, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) emerged from the meeting distributing copies of the Congressional Budget Office's parsing of the report. He had highlighted a line noting that the proposed defense spending caps would not apply to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Remind me again about how the defense and non-defense cuts are well-balanced? Lookit, I voted for Obama in 2008 to end the wars. We're not talking about kabuki theatre here, we're talking about pilotless drones slamming into houses and killing and maiming innocent children. I'm not voting for the guy again. Period. He's off my dance card, and has been for over a year.

  • ohioan on August 01, 2011 5:30 PM:

    Saying this is the best I could get is one thing. But Mr. Obama is boasting that we have Eisenhower level cuts. That's what irritated me.

  • N.Wells on August 01, 2011 5:36 PM:

    If the 2008 voters had gone to the polls last year, the House would've remained in Democratic hands and Nancy Pelosi would still be the Speaker. We wouldn't have had to go through this default crisis created by the House GOP. Had we declared victory and turned out in force and elected strong D majorities, Nancy could have cheerily gone to work on improving health coverage and passing another round of stimulus spending when the first round proved too small. But no, it apparently felt better to many of us to bitch and moan and lose to the R's, and look where that got us. Can we learn to do better than that in the upcoming elections?

  • John Healy on August 01, 2011 5:37 PM:

    It seems to me that the right wing kooks learned that hostage taking pays, especially when dealing with Obama. There's every reason to suppose that they will do the same every chance they get over the next few months. Expect the same craziness from the kooks next month over the budget for the next fiscal year. Obama was a fool not to insist on a clean debt ceiling bill. And he certainly should not be praising the GOP for their "cooperation" and "compromise". If he felt he was blackmailed into an impossible situation and had to act to save the world economy, he should be telling the nation exactly that...and condemning the recklessness and irresponsibility of the right wingnuts.

  • SecularAnimist on August 01, 2011 5:43 PM:

    The Koch-funded "Tea Party" is not targeting Social Security and Medicare.

    They are targeting environmental and worker safety regulations.

    In particular, they want to gut EPA and NOAA.

  • Lance on August 01, 2011 6:06 PM:

    Hi Steve,

    I think Obama wants this. The built in spending expectations of the next two decades are mostly based on the assumption that we will continue to increase payments to doctors and hospitals for medical care rising at twice the wage and price inflation for everybody else...

    ... which doesn't strike me as a 'liberal' idea, it strikes me as a STUPID idea. And if we can just get to the point where we are actually forcing doctors and hospitals to accept less than the rate of wage and price inflation, we'll have solved a lot of the future debt problems. Remember, we pay twice as much for health care as other advanced industrialized countries per person and get worse care.

    We don't pay Medicare to old people, we pay Medicare to millionaires...

    Also, NOW, the budget baseline assumes ALL the Bush Tax rate cuts end in 2013. Which means tax reform is based on a 39.6% top rate, not 36%.

    So maybe we need to look beyond the sound bites at the real effect of these cuts, and the cuts in the second part.

  • castanea on August 01, 2011 6:13 PM:

    The only sure things in life are death, taxes, and the fact that on any comment thread related to politics, at least one commenter will show up and claim to be progressive who voted for Obama in 2008 but is simply soooo disappointed that s/he won't vote for Obama again.

    Anyway, Republicans discovered that taking hostages is a lucrative business when it became clear that the media in America are largely unable or unwilling to differentiate between who is wearing the blindfolds and who is holding the guns.

    I don't think most Americans who were keeping track of the situation really understood how outrageous and destructive the tea party members were being. The vibe I got from most people who weren't political junkies was that the debate was the typical "he said/she said/that's all we have time for" schtick.

  • bdop4 on August 01, 2011 6:27 PM:

    The only path towards redemption for Dems is if they go on the freaking war path to cut corporate welfare and to use whatever discretionary income is available (not much) to create jobs.

    To the extent they get pushback from repubs, they need to mount an aggressive campaign to paint the GOP as completely hostile to job creation.

    But that might create some unpleasantness, so I'm not holding out much hope.

    What I am reading is a lot of wishful thinking about the economy recovering in the next year. Without jobs to generate demand, that is a pipe dream.

  • Chris on August 01, 2011 6:28 PM:

    I'm not as angry about the details of the agreement as I am about the optical outcome. There's reason to believe that if President Obama had handled this matter as many of us had advocated (demand a clean-debt ceiling/approach this as a hostage negotiation) that the deal might not have been any better. As has been pointed out, it could have been much worse either way.

    However, I am seriously frustrated with the fact that swing voters are now confused about what actually took place...extortion. President Obama's portrayed Tea Party Republicans throughout as well-intentioned, albeit petulant, people and himself as a moderator between the extremes of both parties. And so, the swing voter continues to believe that this was more of the same--grandstanding politicians from both sides of the aisle.

    Obama did himself, Democrats, and the country a great disservice with his mixed messages and equal portrayal of Democrats as being petulant children that needed discipline and guidance.

  • melior on August 01, 2011 6:32 PM:

    You sure can tell who only pretends to play a progressive pundit for a paycheck by the way they quickly pivot to describing how tasty this shit sandwich is. Mmmm, yummy!

    But I must have missed it, where's the "balance" again? And oh yeah, where are the umm, jobs?

  • Joe Friday on August 01, 2011 7:06 PM:

    What else could Obama have done ?

    He could have done what Clinton did when the Republicans shut down the federal government TWICE in an attempt to extort him into enacting their RightWing agenda that they could not otherwise enact with the support of the American people.

    After Clinton explained during a televised address the litany of programs for the Middle-class and Working Poor that would be decimated to provide even more tax cuts for the Rich & Corporate, he said he would not sign their legislation into law, and that if the American people wanted such a RightWing agenda enacted into law, they were going to have to get themselves another President.

    Newtie & The Blowhards were forced to capitulate.

    Then, as Krugman pointed out, Obama could have followed in the footsteps of REPUBLICAN President Eisenhower's issuance of gold certificates and done the platinum coin trick, or the 14th Amendment, or other legal gambits.

    Absurd ?

    Of course, but what's wrong with an absurd response to an absurd extortion tactic ?

  • EdgewaterJoe on August 01, 2011 7:19 PM:

    The more I read about what's actually IN the deal - as opposed to what too many bloggers on the Left THINK is in the deal or THINK will happen (I'm looking at you, DailyKos) - the calmer I get. The defense cuts can be seen as a legit progressive win, the Bush tax cuts are on the table (and I do think at a minimum that they'll help Dems retake the House by debating it in '12), and the revelation that cuts aren't scheduled to start until '13 is extremely reassuring.

    Besides, anyone who has ever worked with organizational budgets (as I have in the nonprofit world) knows that budgets - especially budgets in out years going out 2 years, much less 10 - really are fantasy numbers. Budgets can and are changed all the time as realities set in. Budgets are goals, not hard-in-cement rules (which the dumbarse Teapublicans don't realize), meaning Obama and the Dems can change and adapt and revise. And will.

    So let's knock this out and start talking about jobs (the transportation infrastructure bank, for example), organizing (ON WISCONSIN! FIGHT BUCKEYES FIGHT!) and focus on the REAL enemies: the Republican Party, and beat as many of them as we possibly can in the next 16 months or so.

    That's where we can really do our revision.

  • Doug on August 01, 2011 7:36 PM:

    As what the country needs right now is MORE spending by the Federal government to help create jobs (are you listening Speaker Boehner?) and not less, I'd class the "good bits" in this legislation as "a spoonful of sugar". Compared to what the right-wing nutjobs wanted, and actually GOT, I'd call this a "draw" with the potential for a "victory" next year, depending on the economy and what the "Super Commission" recommends (if anything).
    Nor do I see how the Republican/Teabaggers will be able to argue for ANOTHER $1.5 trillion (I believe) in cuts next year when the economy is, quite probably, going to be in even worse shape than now. Well, to be honest, I CAN see them arguing thusly; I just can't see the public believing them.
    Although I'm sure the MSM will do its' best...

  • yellowdog on August 01, 2011 7:42 PM:

    @JFriday: There is a major difference between a government shutdown and a default. A big one.

    In addition, the White House was very clear about what would happen to the economy if the nation defaulted--and the public responded by calling for compromise and no default. The GOP ignored the public's wishes. It catered to the hardliners in its own party. It is on record with vote after vote to destroy major government programs--most taking place after the GOP supposedly learned a lesson with the Ryan plan. The GOP doubled down on destroying popular and necessary programs. There is a mountain of evidence for Democratic candidates to paste GOP Members of Congress with next time out. In addition, at the same time, the GOP will have to argue to voters to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts. Maybe enough voters will feel trickled-upon by then to realize they don't work.

    GOP has overreached. The public is slowly becoming aware of their extremism. More people would know but for the amazingly poor performance of the ever-galling MSM. False equivalence my foot...

    Progressives need to go the extra mile to keep GOPers from decimating voting rights, then show up in vast numbers at the polls to hold the extremists accountable. That red district of Jack Kemp's in upstate New York is now blue because accountability is still possible. Pin these extremist votes on these nut jobs and let the voters vote them out. Sit it out and watch a Romney-Thune administration take over, with Bachmann and Palin as Cabinet officers.

  • travis on August 01, 2011 7:51 PM:

    Everyone who sat on their collective asses during the midterms has this bill to remind them why they need to stay engaged. sitting on your hands because you're not happy with the changes being made or the speed with which they happen will only lead to the even more depressing realization that, yes, it can be worse. And the teatards are worse.

  • AK Liberal on August 01, 2011 7:56 PM:

    @Anonymous on August 01, 2011 5:28 PM, what you see as a bug, I see as a feature. That means that as we continue to wind down our positions in Iraq and Afghanistan and see resultant savings, we must still cut defense spending.

  • calling all toasters on August 01, 2011 9:03 PM:

    Good news everyone!!!! The Republicans only want the Sudetenland!

  • chi res on August 01, 2011 9:51 PM:

    John Healy on August 01, 2011 5:37 PM: Obama was a fool not to insist on a clean debt ceiling bill.

    You da fool, fool. Anyone who would seriously risk a worldwide economic meltdown, which would hurt a hell of a lot more poor and working class people than this debt-reduction agreement will, is clearly the winner of the IMAFOOL trophy.

  • Alli on August 01, 2011 10:11 PM:

    Seriously people, no one is asking you to marry the bill and have kids together. Republican House, Conservative bills. Suck it up. Win in 2012 and correct it. Otherwise....

  • Joe Friday on August 01, 2011 11:32 PM:

    yellowdog,

    "There is a major difference between a government shutdown and a default. A big one."

    And exactly where did I claim they were similar ?

    However, the response should have been the same.


    "In addition, the White House was very clear about what would happen to the economy if the nation defaulted--and the public responded by calling for compromise and no default. The GOP ignored the public's wishes. It catered to the hardliners in its own party. It is on record with vote after vote to destroy major government programs--most taking place after the GOP supposedly learned a lesson with the Ryan plan. The GOP doubled down on destroying popular and necessary programs."

    I don't require a recap of recent events. I was here.


    "the GOP will have to argue to voters to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts. Maybe enough voters will feel trickled-upon by then to realize they don't work."

    You're kidding, right ?

    The American people were overwhelmingly against renewing the tax cuts the last time. That had no effect whatsoever on the Republicans.

    You don't seem to grasp how blackmail and extortion works. Stay tuned. You'll be seeing it in action again very soon.

  • Jamie on August 02, 2011 12:23 AM:

    I like Obama, but he's repeatedly shown himself to not be good at negotiating with the GOP. It's pretty depressing.

  • Tom on August 02, 2011 7:16 AM:

    i read this site quite a bit, but the next time you quote Jay Newton Small I am removing you from my bookmarks.

  • amorphous on August 02, 2011 10:16 AM:

    I think Dems blew it right after the 2008 elections. Republicans started talking about deficits, and managed to get the Village obsessed with deficits. Dems should have said "The most important thing is getting the economy moving, and creating jobs. That's what the public wants. Republicans want to cut jobs. They call it cutting the deficit, but it means cutting jobs." They should have analyzed Ryan's plan and highlighted how many jobs would be cut.

  • cmdicely on August 02, 2011 10:33 AM:

    The American people were overwhelmingly against renewing the tax cuts the last time. That had no effect whatsoever on the Republicans.

    It will next time, since the next time will be the 2012 general elections. That is, if the American people not only are overwhelmingly against the tax cuts, but actually vote based on that preference.

    The whole reason for extending the debt ceiling through the end of 2012 and having the triggered cuts go into effect in 2013 is so that the whole issue can be fought in the 2012 general election rather than as a legislative-elective hostage standoff with the American people on the sidelines.

  • cmdicely on August 02, 2011 10:37 AM:

    I like Obama, but he's repeatedly shown himself to not be good at negotiating with the GOP. It's pretty depressing.

    No one can negotiate with the current GOP: that's not a failure of Obama. You can only negotiate with someone willing to compromise, not someone who wants to destroy you.

    The GOP has to be displaced from power, not negotiated with. The only point of negotiations, really, with this leadership is to provide an opportunity in case they suddenly have a miraculous change of heart, and to keep the public eye on who it is that is forcing the harmful actions that are taking place.

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