Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Targeting Earned Benefits

Rick Perlstein of The Nation notices that given a choice between responsible governance and decimating government, the modern Republican Party, as in the past, has chosen the latter. The damaging impact on the nation's economic health is not a bug, but a goal to be attained. Perlstein, shaking his head in wonder at an administration which thought it might have a party to negotiate with, writes

So: the “sequester.” That too-clever-by-half notion, born of last year’s debt ceiling negotiations out of the White House’s presumption that, when faced with the horror of heedless, profligate, across-the-board budget cuts to all manner of popular government programs, the Republicans’ “fever would break”—remember that?—and the Loyal Opposition would somehow come to agree to a reasonable, “balanced” deficit reduction package. It all seemed so cut and dried in those palmy days, just a few months ago: who could possibly imagine a major American political party could possibly let such madness actually go into effect?

Um, me? I wonder how many folks within the White House, gaming out whether Republicans might not just call the bluff, bothered to consider the fact that an embrace of heedless, profligate, across-the-board budget cuts to all manner of popular government programs is a key component of hardcore conservative ideology. That, when Barry Goldwater proclaimed in his 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size …. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them …. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty,” that Barry Goldwater—and the future millions for whom his sentiments became an ideological touchstone—meant what he said.

Did anyone in the White House notice how many conservatives, including ones in positions of governmental power, after Mitt Romney’s recorded back-room admission that he couldn’t get elected because 47 percent of the electorate is addicted to suckling on the federal teat, responded that what he said was absolutely correct? (Even if they admitted it was unfortunate a public unready to handle it had to hear it.) That conservatives, as an article of faith, see breaking the link between citizens and their government benefits as the only sure way to break the link between voters and the Democratic Party? And that severing that same link is also the best way way to restore the broken moral fabric of the nation? (Which is one explanation Republican governors use to defend their determination not to accept free federal money to qualify more of their poor citizens for Medicaid under Obamacare: They are saving their citizens from wicked dependency. Their other explanation is that Obama must necessarily be lying to them—but that will have to be the subject for another post).

And what could the White House have predicted conservatives would say to those who point out that pulling the rug out from under huge chunks of federal spending will spur a recession? They could have predicted that many would say exactly what they have said: that since it’s excessive federal spending that causes recessions, what’s wrong with cutting excessive federal spending?

Bottom line: didn’t anyone whose job it is to think about such things consider that at least some powerful Republicans—not all, it is true—would relish sequestration as a marvelous thing, a historic opportunity, a gift from Obama to help further the cause they’d been proclaiming as sacred for generations: to shrink the federal government small enough so they could someday drown it in Grover Norquist’s proverbial bathtub? “Once these cuts take effect, thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off and tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids,” said Obama. Did he ever consider that to a lot of Republicans, that would sound like a wish list?

Well, yes.  Reuters reported Sunday afternoon

President Barack Obama raised anew the issue of cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security as a way out of damaging budget cuts, a White House official said on Sunday, as both sides in Washington tried to limit a fiscal crisis that may soon hit millions of Americans.

Signaling he might be ready to explore a compromise to end automatic spending cuts that began late Friday, Obama mentioned reforming these entitlement programs in calls with lawmakers from both parties on Saturday afternoon.

"He's reaching out to Democrats who understand we have to make serious progress on long-term entitlement reform and Republicans who realize that if we had that type of entitlement reform, they'd be willing to have tax reform that raises revenues to lower the deficit," White House senior economic official Gene Sperling said on Sunday on the CNN program "State of the Union."

As we've all come to know, "reform" of entitlements always means a cut in earned benefits.  To conservatives and the neo-liberals who dominate this Administration, the terms "Social Security" and Medicare" are the words that dare not to be uttered.

Not so for House Democrats, most of whom in mid-February sent to the White House a letter "to affirm our vigorous opposition to cutting Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits in any final bill to replace sequestration."

"Vigorous opposition." Huh. Soon afterward, two members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus composed a letter pledging addressed a letter to the White House vowing they " will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits -- including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need."   Ten days after it was first circulated among their colleagues, the letter had been signed by only 16 of 54 members of the Caucus, as well as five other members of the House of Representatives.  

A majority- 107-  of House Democrats told the President they "remain deeply opposed to proposals to reduce Social Security benefits through use of the chained CPI" and "to increase Medicare cost-sharing requirements or to raise the age of eligibility."  They proceeded to " urge you to reject any proposals to cut benefits..."  Later asked to promise to "vote against any and every cut" to entitlements, the numbers plummeted by nearly 500%.

Fortunately, President Obama isn't offering Republicans a 500% cut in earned benefits.  But he is setting up members of his own caucus to approve reductions in Social Security and Medicare in what the media will term a "compromise" and Obama will sell to fellow Democrats as a victory, much the way he sold Rube Goldberg health care reform as a great accomplishment.  That goal was facilitated by the actions of President Obama who, in Dean Baker's words, "decided to play deficit reduction games rather than being truthful about the state of the (faltering) economy."

Echoing Perlstein, one of the smartest people in American politics, Paul Begala, cites Obama's "faith in the reasonableness of others" and finds his "cardinal political error has been that at times he seems to lack the imagination to even conceptualize how truly nihilistic, irresponsible, partisan, and, yes, crazy his Republican opponents are."

But Begala recognizes also the President "is nothing if not smart."  He is "nothing if not smart" and knows where he is taking the country, even if some members of his Party haven't figured it out yet.

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