As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's About Winning The Argument For Change

Michael Hirsh explains the current dynamic in Washington better than anyone else I've seen. Despite the President's belated attempt to reassert control over the agenda, it's important to figure out how this spun so out of control in such a short space of time. Hirsh nails it:

Obama's biggest problem isn't Taxgate—which resulted in the Terrible Tuesday departure of his trusted friend, Tom Daschle, and the defanging of his Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner. Nor is the No. 1 problem that the president can't seem to win a single Republican vote for his stimulus package. That's a symptom, not a cause. The reason Obama is getting so few votes is that he is no longer setting the terms of the debate over how to save the economy. Instead the Republican Party—the one we thought lost the election—is doing that. And the confusion and delay this is causing could realize Obama's worst fears, turning "crisis into a catastrophe," as the president said Wednesday.

Obama's desire to begin a "post-partisan" era may have backfired. In his eagerness to accommodate Republicans and listen to their ideas over the past week, he has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending. This makes very little economic sense when you are in a major recession that only gets worse day by day. Yes, there are still some very legitimate issues with a bill that's supposed to be "temporary" and "targeted"—among them, large increases in permanent entitlement spending, and a paucity of tax cuts requiring immediate spending. Even so, Obama has allowed Congress to grow embroiled in nitpicking over efficiency when the central debate should be about whether the package is big enough. When you are dealing with a stimulus of this size, there are going to be wasteful expenditures and boondoggles. There's no way anyone can spend $800 to $900 billion quickly without waste and boondoggles. It comes with the Keynesian territory. This is an emergency; the normal rules do not apply.

But the public isn't hearing about that all-important distinction right now. And by the time Obama signs a bill—if he can get one approved—many Americans may have concluded that the GOP is right and that the Democrats have embarked on another spending spree, as if this were just another wearying Washington debate.

I think the Administration is starting to get this, perhaps because they see the more ominous warning signs of the economy on the horizon, and they're determined to take back the agenda starting today, using all elements at their disposal, including the bully pulpit and grassroots action. Heck, they're even writing blog posts at on how the plan would create 3-4 million jobs. This is a kitchen sink strategy, albeit a week or two late.

It seems to me that they let their foot off of the accelerator. There was a lot of talk during the transition about how economists and elites of all political ideologies knew something major had to be done, and they must have thought they would just coast to a quick victory on this plan. But that's not what's happening, as public support has melted away under a heap of Republican and media misinformation. The conservative noise machine forced an argument about small particulars rather than the need to have a massive job creation program as soon as possible to stave off disaster. The bill was pre-compromised and nothing like a Roosevelt-era New Deal but it would be enough to spur job creation, save a lot more jobs that would be eliminated, and face down the abyss of massive job loss and a deflationary spiral.

The Administration misread the tenacity of a conservative movement, which has no problem denying basic reality as a governing method, and which capitalized on Obama's bipartisanship fetish instead of a fetish of doing what works. They picked apart the bill and criticized tiny pieces instead of the whole. They disconnected the bill from the argument that the economy is in a nosedive and something must be done to save it. And while ultimately they may lose and something will be enacted, they will have won because they will preserve the fundamental argument that government spending is negative and suspicious while tax cuts are always positive and righteous. Their goal is to muck up the bill enough to discredit it and make it functionally inoperable, purely for reasons of party and not country.

Of course, at some level, why would Republicans be trying to drive the country off a cliff? Well, not pretty to say, but they see it in their political interests. Yes, the DeMints and Coburns just don't believe in government at all or have genuinely held if crankish economic views. But a successful Stimulus Bill would be devastating politically for the Republican party. And they know it. If the GOP successfully bottles this up or kills it with a death of a thousand cuts, Democrats will have a good argument amongst themselves that Republicans were responsible for creating the carnage that followed. But the satisfaction will have to be amongst themselves since as a political matter it will be irrelevant. The public will be entirely within its rights to blame Democrats for any failure of government action that happened while Democrats held the White House and sizable majorities in both houses of Congress.

Ultimately, you don't win any element of the progressive agenda in America through the back door. In secret conservatives can funnel massive amounts of money to contributors and hangers-on, use government as a profit-taking machine, pass legislation with all kinds of corporate giveaways and run roughshod over regulatory agencies. Progressives have to win the argument. It's a hell of a double-standard but it's the cross to bear for the party of the people. Nothing big has ever been done without a lot of people pushing on the outside, and without a forceful component of activism inside and outside of government making the case. I believe they call it leadership. And given the current economic straits, there's no other choice.

But there's a bigger problem here, one that the Obama Administration may not have seen coming, the underlying narrative to government for the last 30 years, one that has sustained through both Republican and Democratic victories. The great Rick Perlstein has a fascinating article about the late, lamented liberal Wisconsin Democrat William Proxmire, and his role in "shooting Santa Claus" - basically, planting the seed in our collective noggins that government spending is wasteful and unnecessary, that "in fact it will make things worse." This flies in the face of all reasonable macroeconomic thought, but talk of "porkbarrel projects" and something called the Golden Fleece Awards brought this contradiction into being, gave it power, and unleashed it on America. It's a ditch out of which we still cannot pull ourselves.

While re-reading old journalism by Tom Geoghegan, I found myself riveted by a piece of his from the New Republic in November of 1972, the same month George McGovern's landslide loss to Richard Nixon marked a major lurch in the long, slow slide of liberalism away from ideological hegemony. The piece was a profile of Wisconsin senator William Proxmire. Reading it, I began to reflect whether Bill Proxmire wasn't the most influential politician of the last 40 years—as the grandfather of the Clinton-era Democratic fetish for fiscal austerity.

Proxmire, who left public service in 1989 and died in 2005, may be best remembered—it's what I remember—for a monthly publicity stunt called the "Golden Fleece Award," bestowed upon what he would claim was the month's most wasteful and ridiculous pockets of government spending. The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse.

I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among the Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs." [...]

Indeed it's not hard to imagine how during the high tide of no-one-shoots-santa-claus-ism, things might have become rather decadent. The moral hazard is plain: If spending is good in itself, the door opens to boondoggles. The field was ripe, in other words, for Golden Fleeces.

Enter William Proxmire, filled with liberal good intentions, introducing a new story into the American political culture: We can do better. That the problem wasn't spending as such, but the misdirection and corruption of spending. Proxmire would quote his hero, the late liberal senator Paul Douglas, chastising their fellow liberals: "Say 'spend,' and they salivated." The source of the quote is significant: Even Paul Douglas,—who, in his days as an an academic economist, had done much the work establishing that it was sound fiscal policy to stimulate consumer spending—understood that things could go too far.

And so we've done a complete 180 in this country. Instead of recognizing that federal spending isn't always virtuous but is part of the overall economy, and vital in an economic trap when consumers and investors aren't ponying up, we've been beaten down by and consumed with far-right rhetoric about pork. So liberals say "we can do better" while conservatives say "we can't do anything." And since the middle ground is spending too little to matter, the country suffers in the process.

And, of course—this is where the "Santa Claus" idea transformed itself from a witty little metaphor to literal Republican principle—"conservatives" didn't cut spending at all. They ballooned it. Here were some contrasts between Reagan and Proxmire: His most useful Golden Fleece awards went to Pentagon expenditures. When Richard Nixon, in the spirit of Republican fiscal responsibility, proposed to lower the federal government's debt ceiling to $250 billion, Proxmire did him one better, saying it should be only $240 billion. Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush after him, provide the plain contrast: Make the idea of reigning in Pentagon spending anathema, utterly unpatriotic, and ignore responsible debt ceilings altogether. They did away with fiscal responsibility, under cover of the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, only changing government spending into a channel for private pilfering instead of a function of the public good.

Alack and alas, William Proxmire: like it or not, your "critique of pork barrel Keynesians" greased the skids for this big con. You and your enlightened Dem budget-hawk comrades made the usual mistake: presume good faith on the part of the modern Republican Party. "One of Proxmire's favorite statistics," Geoghegan reported in 1972, "compares the rate of return on government investment with the rate of return on private investment. (The public sector falls short by five percentage points.) Rather than spend tax money to reach a social goal, he urges the use of tax policy to the same end." Sound familiar? Says today's well-dressed wingnut: tax cuts are the only responsible stimulus. Thought Proxmire: "Neither the Executive nor Congress is organized to make spending 'cost effective.' That rankles him." He convinced a nation. Now, concludes the well-dressed wingnut, government spending is inherently irresponsible. And the well-dressed Democrat half believes he must be right.

This is a story that has put liberals—"responsible" ones, "populist" ones, all of them—into a terrible bind. At this late date, decades since anyone in Washington would admit to believing that any government spending is useful spending, when flesh-and-blood Democrats in the White House like Bill Clinton proved themselves such responsible stewards of the public purse that the federal payroll went down under their watch, Barack Obama wants to do some spending. He wants to do it in a way Proxmire the liberal budget hawk would surely have signed off on: targeted, responsible, scientifically—sophisticated spending, on public-service jobs, spending that starts fast and automatically tapers off as the economy recovers.

And what is his reward? Republicans are able to parade themselves before our supposedly most responsible media commentators and proclaim, "Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job."

You have to do more than win an election. You have to win the argument. You have to tell people why your ideas are more worthy of their vote than the opponent's ideas. It cannot be style, or charisma, or superior resources. Not if you want big change. As Tom Geoghegan said at a chat with LA-area bloggers yesterday, people don't like taxes because they don't feel like they get anything for them in return. Instead of blaming those in government siphoning away that money to the rich, they blame the taxes. It's natural. And it becomes a terrible conditioned response, one that disrupts and distorts progressive change for our whole society.

We have to, in the short term, turn around the flood of calls and fight for this recovery plan. As the months go on, we have to continue to make the arguments, as we have on the blogosphere for years, to our lawmakers, and press them to make those arguments wherever they go. President Obama started this today with a simple statement.

In the past few days, I've heard criticisms that this [stimulus] plan is somehow wanting, and these criticisms echo the very same failed economic theories that led us into this crisis in the first place, the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems, that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care, that we can somehow deal with this in a piecemeal fashion and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject those theories. And so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change.

Especially in the midst of this meltdown, we cannot sit back for a moment while the forces conspiring to maintain the failed status quo push ever forward. Forget about campaigning, this is governing. And while different rules apply, one thing is constant - we will never win the battle of ideas by sitting on the sidelines.

Call your Reps.

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