Sometimes in punditry the first cut is not the deepest; it is instead the most superficial. Much of the first round of punditry on Obama’s budget misses the point in surprising ways. What I find most disturbing is not how he is “selling out the left” again. I like Obama just fine as long as I remember that he is a centrist president. What disturbs me is that he continues to do things that indicate he doesn’t understand how strategic negotiation works.
He’s made a show of cutting some programs he holds dear. That includes a 50 percent reduction in home heating subsidies. The strategy presumably is:
1) Constituents on his side will pile on and “save” the subsidy while demonstrating just how punitive and disruptive these safety-net cuts can be.
2) He has demonstrated that he is willing to cut programs he really cares about and so lays down the gauntlet for the Republicans to cut some things they care about.
So what happens? Everybody on both sides piles on and George Will defends him. I, for one, would hate to be defended by George Will.
The elephant-sized problem is that such cuts represent little, tiny, micro-pennies on the dollars in the budgetary scheme of things. They are grains of sand. Why waste our time? It seems that President Obama believes that in strategic negotiations you have to put something you really care about on the line up front to demonstrate good faith. No! You save the things you really care about for last.
Strategy means paying attention to the few things that matter the most. In budget terms, that means entitlements and defense. As an opening gambit, rather than leaving these things off the table, he should have made a move to offer very small cuts in the big three: Medicare, Medicaid and defense. A cut of .000001 percent in Medicare pays for all the subsidized heating you could ever need. I am not saying that such a tiny cut in entitlements would suffice. But had he offered a cut of 1 to 1.5 percent in each of the Big Three categories, then we would be on our way. He could have offered up the little-known Department of Defense health care plan that covers retired officers outside of the V.A. or Champus, costs its enrollees $400 a year and taxpayers tens of billions a year.
Then, after the punditry universe pilloried him, it would be up to the Republicans to say how much more they would cut from the programs that people really, really like. True, real compromise comes from behind closed doors. But like the James brothers, who robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” we have to go to entitlements to get to the real action.
Pell grants? Get real. Block grants for social work? Whatever. It is said that no Democrat can ever cut defense or he will be savaged for being weak on defense. I say, go straight at ‘em. I’d go for a two percent cut in defense, just as a debating stance, because I’d want them to come at me on something where they want what government provides but refuse to pay for it. A new Rockefeller Foundation study reveals that 66 percent of Republicans want the government to fund better roads. But when asked to pay for it through higher gas taxes, support vaporizes. In fact, support plummets the second any funding mechanism is proposed. That’s the conversation I want to have.
And if I am going to have a fight with the Republicans, and have them risk shutting down the government, for which they very well might be blamed, I would put some taxes on the table. Salon’s Joan Walsh in “What story does Obama's budget tell Americans?” discusses Robert Reich’s proposal to increase taxes on the very rich back to levels from another era. Heck, yeah, let’s propose a two-year temporary clawback tax of an escalating range of basis points on those making $500,000 year and up. The number of points may be three or four percentage points on incomes of $500,000, seven or eight for incomes of $5 million and up, and so on. We don’t have to even get near the rates Reich endorses. If the Republicans want to eviscerate the middle class while defending the uber-rich that’s fine with me, let's let them take their best shot.
The secret to the upcoming battle is to stand up for the middle class while demonstrating that you can make hard choices. Heating subsidies—give me a break. It’s not that they are so sacred given our present dysfunction, it’s that you should let Republicans cut them. Our system may be so broke that draconian cuts must ultimately send very poor people to the church house door so we can prove anew for the current generation of liberscrewyoutarians that the church doors will not open in sufficient measure to care for those most at-risk in our society. We may have to actually revisit the 19th Century in the Republican Wayback Machine so people can get a taste of the vigorous, laissez-faire, die-in-the-poorhouse dog-eat-dog society they seem to miss so badly.
But if we are going to go that ugly place, the very least we can do is cut, in modest measure, in the areas where we really are hemorrhaging cash. And let the Republicans pile on. And then, if the voters realize that their barbarians at the gate have gone too far, maybe we can move the pendulum ever so slightly to the center. There will be blood. There will be brinksmanship. There will be pain. But if you can’t stand for the middle class, and yes, even save a little shred of safety net for those who are most at-risk, then you aren’t standing anywhere at all.