In Tuesday's Washington Post, that great font of conventional Villager wisdom Dana Milbank ran a column with one or two passably decent points and a lot of classic Beltway nonsense and false equivalency. None of this will be new or surprising to many of you, and I could have chosen any number of columns or editorials to focus on, but I was irritated by this one. When I saw Milbank repeating the themes on Chris Matthews's show, I thought some deconstruction of the column would be useful.
First, the good. Milbank does not completely dismiss the progressive point of view, and in fact acknowledges the merits of its substance:
The liberals’ objections are legitimate — particularly their resistance to a stingier inflation formula for Social Security, which isn’t as big a budget problem as Medicare. There’s a case to be made that the president shouldn’t negotiate with himself by opening the bidding with his final offer. There’s also a concern that he now “owns” Social Security cuts, and Republicans can use that against him.
I will ignore, for now, the erroneous suggestion that Social Security is a "budget problem" -- or even a part of the general operating budget.
More sort-of good: Milbank suggests that militant opposition to the Chained CPI is helpful in moving the Overton Window leftward.
But, in reality, the progressives’ street protest did Obama a favor. He needs to have the likes of Bernie Sanders against him. It strengthens his hand and helps him negotiate a better deal with Republican leaders, who can now see that liberal backbenchers and interest groups can sometimes be as intransigent as conservatives.Many of us here have been hoping for a real "Progressive Block" (remember that?) where the left-leaning members of Congress draw lines in the sand beyond which they won't go and stick to those lines. Milbank suggests that, at the least, the deals can get pulled leftward if Boehner thinks such a phenomenon exists.
The "designed to wake the sleeping giant on the left" argument and the column's very title ("Obama’s intransigent backbench"), however, do not comport with recent history. To buy this, one must pretend the past four years didn't happen. One must pretend that "the left" wouldn't give an inch on anything, and so the ACA went into effect with a public option and without being watered down a bit. Likewise, the Dodd-Frank bill wasn't watered down in the least because "the left" wouldn't have it. Certainly, the prior negotiations on the various budgets and the debt ceiling didn't include massive federal spending cuts, because the "intransigent" left blocked them.
I don't buy that Obama's inclusion of Chained CPI specifically was designed to prompt a backlash on the left that will show the GOP there are compromises the Democratic Party won't accept. More likely, if the GOP ever did say "yes," Obama, Reid and Pelosi would whip the Congressional Democrats to pass the "deal," cuts and all.
But I shouldn't be too critical, because that's the good stuff. In the rest of the column Milbank can't help himself. It is full of Beltway gibberish that reveals much of what is wrong with our politics.
First, let's look at how Milbank begins the piece:
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, red in the face, took off his jacket and rolled up a shirt sleeve — but there was no relief from the discomfort of his affliction.After seeing Milbank on Chris Matthews (on MSNBC, that alleged Fox News "counterweight on the left") dismissively mocking Sanders and the other protesters, it's clear this was meant to further the narrative that "the left" are loony 1960s relics. Does he really expect us to believe these cops think Bernie Sanders is going to blow up the White House or something?
The poor guy is suffering from triangulation.
The man triangulating him, President Obama, has proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of an attempt to find a middle ground in the budget debate. For Sanders (I), a liberal member of the Senate Democratic caucus, the betrayal stung so badly that he literally took to the streets, joining left-wing activists for a protest Tuesday afternoon outside the White House.
“When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he said that he would not cut Social Security. We want the president to remember what he said and not go back on his word!” Sanders shouted into a microphone, as cops watched warily.
Following another familiar Beltway theme, Milbank devotes much of the column to equating opponents of Social Security cuts with Republican opponents of any increase in revenues whatsoever.
At a Republican presidential debate in 2011, all eight candidates on the stage said they would reject a budget deal that raised taxes even if it had $10 of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. At Tuesday’s protest, I put the reverse question to participants: Could they accept a dollar of cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits for every $10 of increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy? All those I asked said they would decline.Those are not "reverse questions." Let's review. The Republicans' rationale for refusing even a single dollar in tax increases:
“Not for me, no,” said Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.).
“I’m not taking your offer,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
“No, it’s not negotiable,” said Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO’s policy director.
“Uh, no,” said Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy for America.
Similar answers came from Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America’s Future, Manny Herrmann from MoveOn — and, of course, Sanders.
Sure, we've got a huge deficit caused by Bush tax cuts for the rich, Bush wars, and a Bush economic crash. And, sure, federal receipts as a share of GDP are lower than anytime in the past sixty years or so. Sure the cuts are hitting programs that vast majorities of Americans don't want cut. But we won't raise taxes a dime, because we don't really care about closing deficits, we just want to drown government in a bathtub.
The "left's" rationale for refusing even a single dollar in Social Security cuts goes something like this:
Social Security, a separately funded program, contributes not a dime to the deficit. Even Ronald Reagan was clear on that. In fact, since 1983 ordinary working Americans have paid MORE in payroll taxes than was needed to pay out Social Security benefits in virtually every year. That surplus was lent, at favorable rates, to the general operating budget.
This situation, in fact, laid the groundwork for the Bush tax cuts of 2001. They sold it as "giving the surplus back to the people" but in fact there was no general budget surplus without the Social Security trust fund lending its surplus to the general fund. In essence, Bush and Cheney (with an assist from Tom Daschle) used the overpayment of Social Security taxes -- only assessed on the first $80,400 of income in 2001 -- to justify a massive tax cut targeted heavily toward income above that level. That tax cut alone, combined with its 2003 sibling, accounts for a huge portion of our current deficit.
For nearly 40 years, the incomes of the top few percent have been growing at an astronomical rate while the incomes of most Americans have been stagnant at best. Since the 2008 crash, the incomes of the top few percent have continued to grow at a high rate while the average income of the bottom 90% plus of the people have gone down. Yet the federal tax burden on those high earners (term "earners" used advisedly) remains historically low, even after the "fiscal cliff" deal of January 1 those high income people.
In theory we would like to solve that deficit problem in the medium or long term (though I believe more stimulus is needed in the short term because demand remains weak). But in this context, there is no justification whatsoever for attempting to "reduce the deficit" by cutting benefits in a program that (1) has a separate funding source; (2) is solvent and projected to be so for at least twenty years; (3) has been a piggy bank for the general budget for three decades; (4) is the primary means of support for one of our most vulnerable demographics, who are barely scraping by as it is and whose cost of living is rising more quickly than that of younger families.
Instead, we should handle the budget deficit with methods that actually address it. Since we've already cut to historic lows, the "deficit reduction" should come from raising taxes on the wealthiest, cutting true waste (like Billy Tauzin's brazen Medicare Part D giveaway to Big Pharma and some defense spending), and growing our economy, which itself will improve federal receipts. And we'll handle Social Security separately, since it is a separate program with a separate funding source. The fixes for it are simple and won't be needed for two decades.
Only in Beltway-land are those two arguments are equally absurd and the two sides equally intransigent.
Moving on. Immediately after suggesting "the left" has valid objections to the Chained CPI, Milbank says:
But Obama’s proposal, if the details turn out to be as advertised, restores his credibility on the budget. His previous budgets, which skirted entitlement cuts, weren’t taken seriously.It is so ingrained an assumption that "entitlement cuts" are an essential component of a "credible" and "serious" budget proposal that Milbank makes no attempt to explain why, as a matter of policy, this should be so. In fact, these assertions come directly after he asserted that the "liberals" are justified in objecting to Chained CPI as a policy matter. How exactly does inclusion of an objectionable provision convert an unserious budget proposal into a serious one?
Now Obama, by publicly defying liberals in his party, looks like the reasonable one — and Republicans look unreasonable if they continue to carp about Obama’s proposal without offering more tax hikes.
Dana, how about this: We determine what is "serious" in a budget on how well it reflects the priorities of the American people, not by cocktail party chatter among the Pete Peterson set. In fact, I have yet to hear a cogent argument from any Villager type as to why it is serious at all to include, in a general budget proposal, cuts to two separately funded programs, nor why any cuts are needed for those programs' own solvency. Social Security faces a shortfall in some two decades down the road. At any time between now and then we can fix that problem with a simple fix: raise the cap so that the payroll tax covers 90 percent of income covered by Social Security. This was the percentage envisioned in the 1983 Reagan-O'Neill-Greenspan deal, but income since then has skewed so heavily to the top that the FICA tax now falls on only 84 percent of income covered by Social Security.
Medicare, as Milbank notes, is a more daunting problem. But that is because of the meteoric rise in medical costs generally. Medicare costs actually have risen more slowly than medical costs generally. To tackle this, there are a number of reasonable strategies. First and foremost, eliminate the Billy Tauzin giveaway to Big Pharma by allowing Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate lower drug prices. Second, eliminate the inefficient Medicare Advantage that is a giveaway to private insurance companies. Beyond that, there are strategies for reducing healthcare costs as a general matter. But when the President included them in the ACA, the Republicans screamed about "death panels." Where were Dana Milbank and his crowd to yell "bullshit!" in 2010?
Look, it would be great if, now that Obama's put this on paper in his budget proposal, the Beltway crowd would suddenly say, "That's what we've been waiting for. From here on out, let it be known Obama is reasonable, the GOP is not, and the GOP has to give." Then we can move on from this absurdity. But I have no expectation that Milbank, or his own paper's editorial board, will actually start saying Obama's reasonable and the Republicans are not. I'll virtually guarantee they won't. As Paul Krugman put it yesterday:
After all, if whoever it is that Obama is trying to appeal to here — I guess it’s the Washington Post editorial page and various other self-proclaimed “centrist” pundits — were willing to admit the fundamental asymmetry in our political debate, willing to admit that if DC is broken, it’s because of GOP radicalism, they would have done it long ago. It’s not as if this reality was hard to see.Like Krugman, I see no reason why surrendering this particular hostage will change that dynamic.
But the truth is that the “centrists” aren’t sincere. Calls for centrism and bipartisanship aren’t actual demands for specific policies — they’re an act, a posture these people take to make themselves seem noble and superior. And that posture requires blaming both parties equally, no matter what they do or propose. Obama’s budget will garner faint praise at best, quickly followed by denunciations of the president for not supplying the Leadership (TM) to make Republicans compromise — which means that he’s just as much at fault as they are, see?
The column's climax is a paean to the political genius of "triangulation."
It’s perhaps the most brazen attempt at triangulation in the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton (whose adviser Dick Morris popularized the term) defied liberals on welfare reform. That worked well for Clinton, and this may work well for Obama – but in the short term he’s going to hear a lot of gasping and wheezing from those being triangulated.Especially if you saw Milbank on Tweety's show, it's hard to miss the gleeful tone. Ha ha, dumb hippie liberal progressives. That guy you thought was your guy is one of us. He's a "serious" Villager ready to do the "serious" work of cutting benefits for old people who've paid into the system all their lives. You have nowhere to go.
* * *
Jim Dean, Howard’s brother, shouted into the microphones: “The era of triangulation is over!”
Or is it just beginning?
Regardless of the merits of the policy changes involved, sez Dana, this may "work" for Obama. "Work for what purpose?," I ask. Clinton triangulated to win the 1996 election after a 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. In my opinion, it was shameful. In my first-ever Presidential election, I did not vote for Clinton as a result of it. But he had an election to worry about. Obama already has won re-election, and done so, I might add, on a party platform that is the opposite of this. So the only way this will "work" for Obama is in legitimizing right-wing policy. Why that would be any kind of worthy end, Dana doesn't say.
1. The liberals are basically correct on the policy question.
2. The policy question doesn't matter, because you have to offer entitlement cuts to be serious.
3. Obama will look reasonable by standing up to the liberals, and that may pull the deals leftward.
4. But not so far leftward that they fail to include entitlement cuts, since that would not be serious.
5. The liberals are silly 1960s protesters.
6. Triangulation, even with no more elections left for Obama to win, is brilliant strategy because [ ].