[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
David Brooks's New York Times column on Monday created quite a stir, getting major play on cable television news and online (at least between Casey Anthony reports).
Most of the discussion turned on Brooks' assertion that "the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative."
The idea that the current Tea Party-dominated GOP is single-mindedly focused on its far-right ideology at the expense of what is best for the country is not news to anyone who has been paying attention for the last two-and-a-half years. I suppose the fact the statement came from Brooks, a conservative, is what caused the column to get so much attention.
But I am way more interested in Brooks's premise than his conclusion. His declaration that the Republican Party has been "infected" is based on the fact that the Democrats are offering the GOP a great deal on the budget, but the Republicans are holding out for complete victory. Brooks's second paragraph reads:
"Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession."
This infuriates me. Not that I disagree with Brooks's premise. He is, of course, correct. What angers me so is how easily the Democrats have rolled over to the Republicans, both because it's bad for the country and bad, strategically, for the Democrats' electoral chances in 2012.
With unemployment still high despite corporations rolling in profits (Think Progress recently relayed a Northeastern University study that showed that 88 percent of the growth in national income for the last 18 months has gone to massive corporate profits while only 1 percent has gone to wages, and the New York Times recently reported that top executives enjoyed a 23 percent pay increase in 2010), it is patently illogical, immoral and bad for the country to fund cuts in government spending with tax cuts for the wealthy.
But by using the debt ceiling issue to extort cuts in government spending, Republicans, who control only one of the three segments of federal lawmaking, the House of Representatives, are dictating to the Democrats, who control the other two entities (the Senate and the presidency), the terms of negotiation.
So why have the Democrats caved into the Republican assumption that cuts have to be made to raise the debt ceiling? The decision is especially vexing when you consider that the Democrats have not even tried to point out the two big lies at the heart of Republican claims.
First, Republicans talk about runaway spending, but a recent study revealed that when you control for population growth and inflation, 2011 federal spending is roughly equal to that in 2001 (Clinton's last budget), but in 2001, that spending level resulted in a surplus. Why? The Bush tax cuts. In other words, it's not spending that has gotten out of control, but a deficit has erupted due to tax cuts for the wealthy (plus the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Second, the Republicans talk a lot about the federal deficit, but, in practice, they don't care at all about the deficit. If they did, they would put tax cuts for the wealthy, which could be used to balance the budget, on the table. Instead, they are resolutely protecting the wealthiest Americans, to the detriment of the rest of us. The party's priority is to effectively do away with safety net programs they have despised from their inception (like Paul Ryan's plan to destroy Medicare) and to cut taxes, regardless of the impact on the deficit.
The most troubling part of the Democrats' surrender to the GOP, though, is that the president has offered Medicare cuts as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling.
For starters, raising the debt ceiling isn't (and never was) a controversial action. Bush approved the move seven times during his presidency, and the ultra conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an Obama-bashing right-wing-loyal business group, has come out strongly in favor of raising the ceiling.
So why are the Democrats surrendering on this issue? And why offer Medicare cuts?
Politics can be hard to predict sometimes. President Obama and the Democrats won in a landslide in 2008, only for the Republicans to make gains in 2010. But there has been one constant in recent elections and polling that could not be clearer: Americans don't want Medicare cuts, nor do they want massive cuts that affect the middle class to fund tax cuts for millionaires. (In a Gallup poll, 59 percent said they supported the end of the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $250,00 per year.)
Part of the Republican victories in 2010 can be attributed to opposition to the health care reform legislation, and much of that anger was stoked by right wing media lies, the biggest one of which was that the law would make massive cuts to Medicare benefits and result in rationing and death panels that would keep senior citizens from getting needed care. (I am in the beginning stages of a research project looking at how Fox News and MSNBC discussed health care reform in August 2009, and my preliminary findings show that Fox News prime-time programming hammered home claims that seniors would be denied care under the health care reform proposal being considered in Congress at the time.)
In 2011, Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which included the essential destruction of Medicare (turning it from a single-payer system to one with vouchers that would have been inadequate for tens of millions of seniors to fund health insurance, leaving them without health care), was so unpopular, Americans rebelled. In May, voters in a historically Republican House district in New York turned out in unusually high numbers to hand the seat to seat to a Democrat in a special election, almost entirely due to outrage at the Ryan Medicare plan. (New York's 26th district had been in Republican hands for all but 16 years since 1857.)
It seems clear: If you propose Medicare cuts, the American people will vote against you.
Due to Republican over-reaching on spending cuts and tax reductions for the wealthy, buyer's remorse is sweeping the country, with recently elected Republican governors in New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin facing plunging approval ratings. And a recent poll found President Obama ahead of every Republican presidential challenger (and even leading Rick Perry and Sarah Palin in Texas, one of the most conservative states in the country).
The American people may often be hard to read, but now is one time they are speaking loudly and clearly: Don't cut Medicare, and don't make drastic budget cuts without raising taxes on the wealthy.
So what are the Democrats doing? Not pushing hard enough for eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy, and putting Medicare cuts on the table. It's maddening. Bill Clinton came out and urged the president not to cave into the Republicans, arguing that there is no reason for the Democrats to agree to cuts without raising taxes on the wealthy.
To me, the take away from Brooks's column isn't that members of the Tea Party-captured Republican party "do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it." We knew that already.
No, the important part of Brooks's piece is the fact that the "Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill."
It is easy to make the argument that the policies of the current, far-right GOP, with its goal of returning the country to the approach of the Hoover administration (and the wealth disparity and massive suffering that went with it, as well as the depression that followed), are bad for the American people. What is harder to understand is why the Democrats are so afraid to stand against these ruinous proposals, and why they have allowed the Republicans' false assumptions to be the accepted premise for the debate.
Brooks argues that if no compromise is reached and the debt ceiling isn't raised, independents will blame the Republicans for not acting reasonably. I'm not sure I agree. The American people have spoken, and they don't want cuts to Medicare. If the Democrats cave into the GOP and agree to Medicare cuts in exchange for the necessary and routine act of raising the debt ceiling, they will be every bit as responsible as the GOP for the pain the country experiences, and will get their share of the blame.
So if the Democrats don't stand firm, not only will the American people pay the price, the party will have missed out on a golden opportunity to win elections in 2012. The message from Americans is clear. The Democrats just have to listen.