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Lessons from the debt ceiling debate

August 1, 2011

The debt ceiling debacle that has so rankled Washington over the past few weeks provides progressives with several lessons they should take into the 2012 presidential election and beyond.

First, President Obama is either too weak to stand up to Republicans, or he is what many liberals have long suspected — a moderate-to-conservative pragmatist who is more interested in bipartisan dealmaking than fighting for progressive programs. (See Politico and Glenn Greenwald articles.)

Second, conservatives will continue to win major concessions on government spending and tax policy as long as Obama and the Democrats continue to debate issues on Republican terms.

And third, unless progressives organize to become a more serious voice in the national dialogue, Obama and other Democratic leaders will continue to drift to the right knowing they have nothing to worry about from their left flank.

Obama’s weakness

Obama has shown over and over again that he is willing to back down on issues that are supposedly important to him.

During the health care reform debate, for example, it took only two months for Obama to abandon his commitment to a government-run insurance plan, or public option, when Republicans threatened to hold up any legislation that included such a program.

Between September and December 2009, the president’s rhetoric went from (a) “I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we [the government] will provide you with a choice” to (b) “[the public option] is not the most important aspect” of the health care bill then moving through Congress.

The same dynamic played out last year when Obama capitulated to Republican demands and agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans after he repeatedly promised during the 2008 presidential election that he would “roll back” those cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers.

It is no wonder that the Tea Party gang that has come to dominate the Republican caucus in the House would be so willing to push the American government to the brink of default during the recent debt ceiling fight. Why not? Obama has blinked in the past. It was a sure bet he would blink again.

Debating on GOP terms

Aside from Obama’s poor negotiating abilities, the Democrats lost the debt ceiling argument as soon as they agreed to link future spending to the debt limit, even though one has very little to do with the other.

Once this concession was made, the Democrats were negotiating on Republican terms, with the language of both sides reflecting the conservative philosophy that the main way to reduce America’s national debt is to cut the size of government.

Just look at how the debate played out. The point of contention was not should government spending be cut during a weak economy, it was how large should the cuts be.

The result is that the Democrats were forced to accept a debt reduction outline that includes more than $2 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade without any guarantee that taxes will be increased on the rich. As the New York Times reported today, “Republicans received more of what they demanded than did Mr. Obama, who acquiesced in his initial call for a balanced mix of spending cuts and new revenue…”

Progressive voices

The real problem, though, rests with progressives themselves, most of whom have been shunned to the fringe of the Democratic Party where they can do little else but yell and scream from the blogosphere or, for a few hours each night, MSNBC.

The lack of an organized Left has not only permitted Obama to drift rightward, it has allowed conservatives to falsely label the president a socialist or radical.

Imagine for a minute that there was a strong, well-organized Progressive Party advocating a truly “radical” agenda that included a single-payer health care system and significant tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals.

In such a world, Obama and congressional Democrats might be less inclined to take liberal voters for granted. In addition, Republican claims that Obama is a socialist would fall on their face when compared to a real left-wing alternative.

More importantly, a serious challenge from the Left would further expose Obama for what he is — a center-right Democrat in the mold of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group that relegated the liberal wing of the party to the sidelines in the 1990s.

It is time for progressives to get back into the mix by either reclaiming the Democratic Party or considering options such as the Greens or some other left-wing movement.

That does not necessarily mean that liberals should abandon the president at the ballot box next year and ensure a Republican victory. But unless progressives find some way to make their voices heard more clearly and effectively, American political discourse will continue its rightward tilt, even with a Democratic president at the helm.


From → Analysis

One Comment
  1. Evette permalink

    “The real problem, though, rests with progressives themselves, most of whom have been shunned to the fringe of the Democratic Party where they can do little else but yell and scream from the blogosphere or, for a few hours each night, MSNBC.

    The lack of an organized Left has not only permitted Obama to drift rightward, it has allowed conservatives to falsely label the president a socialist or radical.”


    Excellent observation. I believe this is the result of decades of Republcian wordplay where anything eben moderatre is now deemed “far-left liberal.” The news media has bought it and so have otherwise good Democrats.

    The saving grace seems to be that this GOP approach seems to embolden them beyond all reason, and so we get people like Michelle Bachman as the GOP presidential frontrunner and right-wing fired burning for wholly unqualified human beings like Sarah Palin. These two womne are, literally, mentally ill and completely unqualified to hold even theoir present positions. Add Herman Cain and Rick Perry to the mix and you get 15% of base, right-wing Amercia saying “right on!” and the 45% of unaffiliated voters saying “Whoa! He just said WHAT??”

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