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Matt Bai's Post-Partisanship

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A few weeks back I participated in a post-election roundtable that included Peter Hart and former Nixon aide David Gergen. The session got unexpectedly hot, in particular over the whole issue of whether or not Obama had done enough to keep America's CEOs happy. Gergen kept pressing this idea that, even though finance-industry bonuses are back up to record highs at the same time that real human beings are facing horrific unemployment and foreclosure crises, Obama needed to work harder at jacking off the CEO class.

When I got genuinely emotional in response to this idea, Gergen continually expressed not so much anger as surprise. He made some cryptic comments (which didn't appear in the printed transcript) that included one exchange in which he suggested that he didn't expect to hear this sort of thing from me, among other things because my opinions clashed with something that had recently appeared in my own "newspaper."

I thought, what newspaper? What is this guy talking about? In a quizzical voice I asked Gergen what he meant, but by then we were rolling onto the next subject. The whole thing was odd -- clearly he had no idea who I was, but the interesting thing is that he seemed to think he knew who I was.  After the event I smiled weakly, shook his hand, and walked out, confused.

A few hours later, I figured it out. Gergen clearly had me mixed up with Matt Bai, the New York Times reporter.

Bai is one of those guys -- there are hundreds of them in this business -- who poses as a wonky, Democrat-leaning "centrist" pundit and then makes a career out of drubbing "unrealistic" liberals and progressives with cartoonish Jane Fonda and Hugo Chavez caricatures. This career path is so well-worn in our business, it's like a Great Silk Road of pseudoleft punditry. First step: graduate Harvard or Columbia, buy some clothes at Urban Outfitters, shore up your socially liberal cred by marching in a gay rights rally or something, then get a job at some place like the American Prospect. Then once you're in, spend a few years writing wonky editorials gently chiding Jane Fonda liberals for failing to grasp the obvious wisdom of the WTC or whatever Bob Rubin/Pete Peterson Foundation deficit-reduction horseshit the Democratic Party chiefs happen to be pimping at the time. Once you've got that down, you just sit tight and wait for the New York Times or the Washington Post to call. It won't be long.

Bai is the poster child of those guys. So naturally Gergen must have been shocked to see, well, Matt Bai screaming kill-the-rich brickbats at him over coffee and pastries. I had a good laugh imagining that somewhere, at that very moment, David Gergen was telling someone what an asshole Matt Bai is. I wonder if anyone's filled him in on the mistake yet.

Against the backdrop of that long backstory, I bring you Matt Bai's latest gem of an article. The Times man this week wrote an article entitled, "Debt-Busting Issue May Force Obama Off The Fence."

This article of Bai's is such a classic piece of Beltway-Dem propaganda, it should be an exhibit in a museum. It starts with this gorgeous false dichotomy (emphasis here is mine):

When President Obama’s fiscal commission offers its proposals on Wednesday, after the release by several liberal groups of their own debt-busting plans this week, the essential decision facing Mr. Obama in these last two years of his term will have been neatly framed. He can side either with centrist reformers in both parties, who would overhaul both cherished entitlements and the tax system, or with traditional liberals, who prefer new levies on the wealthy and substantial cuts in military spending.

In other words, the suddenly pressing issue of the debt will force Mr. Obama to choose, at last, between the dueling, ill-defined promises of his presidential campaign — between a “postpartisan” vision of government on one hand and a liberal renaissance on the other.

This is an ancient trick -- defining the insider move that the campaign donors like as "bipartisan" (or, in this case, "post-partisan") centrism, while dissing the move favored by clear majorities of human beings as narrow radicalism.

Bai is talking here about some very clear and obvious choices Obama is about to make. There's the question of whether or not to extend the insane Bush tax cuts, and paired up with this is the recent return of that unkillable Beltway cliche, the notion that Social Security is going broke and that the solution to the nation's deficit reduction problems lies there.

Let's be clear about what's going on here. Social Security was never the cause of the nation's debt problems. This issue dates all the way back to the Eighties, when Ronald Reagan hired Alan Greenspan to chair the National Commission on Social Security Reform, ostensibly to deal with a looming shortfall in the fund. Greenspan's solution was to hike Social Security tax rates (they went from 9.35% in 1981 to 15.3% in 1990) and build up a "surplus" that could be used to pay Baby Boomers their social security checks 30 years down the road.

They raised the SS taxes all right, but they didn't save the money for any old Baby Boomers in the 2000s. Instead, Reagan blew that money paying for eight years of deficit spending and tax cuts. Three presidents after him used the same trick. They used about $1.69 trillion in extra Social Security revenue (from the Greenspan hikes) to pay for current-day goodies, with the still-being-debated Bush tax cuts being a great example. This led to the infamous moment during Bush's presidency when Paul O'Neill announced that the Social Security Trust Fund had no assets.

Well, duh! That is what happens to a fund, when you spend 30 years robbing it to pay for tax cuts for Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. It will tend to get empty. But of course this wasn't presented to the public as being the consequence of too many handouts to wealthy campaign contributors: this was presented as a problem of those needy goddamned old people wanting to retire too early and being just far too greedy when it came to actually wanting their Social Security benefits paid out.

And so in all seriousness none other than Alan Greenspan proposed back in 2004 that the "social security problem" be rectified by means of reforms that should sound familiar to those reading the news of late: raising the retirement age and cutting benefits.

I wrote about this in Griftopia, but there's one more key fact here. Social Security taxes are capped, which means that above a certain level (I believe it's $106,000 this year) there are no additional taxes. Which means that Jamie Dimon pays a disproportionately small amount of Social Security tax -- an arrangement that makes sense, if that money is only going to one place, i.e. back, later on, to the person who paid the taxes, in the form of Social Security benefits. 

But if all that money is just going into a big pile to be stolen by a long line of presidents who are using it to pay for things like pointless wars and income tax cuts for their rich buddies, the Social Security cap means that this stealth government revenue source disproportionately comes from middle class taxpayers. Add in the fact that the proposed solution to the budget problem now is cutting Social Security benefits, and what you get is a double-screwing of middle-class taxpayers: first they see their Social Security taxes used to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, and then they see cuts to their benefits to pay for the fallout from that robbery.

Of course, that's not how Bai is presenting it. In his telling of the story, Obama is going to be presented with sober, correct analysis (the Bush tax cuts must be preserved, while Social Security bennies must be cut), and whether or not he forges ahead and defies his hysterical and irrational base to make those cuts will reveal the extent of his character. He writes:

The problem with this stance, two years into his presidency, is that it seems to have put Mr. Obama in something of a box. Since he isn’t willing to break publicly with liberals, independent and conservative voters tend to see him as a tool of the left. And since he generally won’t do exactly what the left wants him to do, he ends up with very little gratitude from his own party.

This political no-man’s land, however, is about to become uninhabitable. The national debt is near the top of any list of voter concerns at the moment, and when his commission votes Friday on its final recommendations, Mr. Obama will be handed concrete and contrasting options for addressing it.

Budget experts from both parties agree, for instance, with the commission’s co-chairmen, Erskine B. Bowles and Alan K. Simpson, that some reduction in Social Security benefits will be essential to the nation’s long-term fiscal stability. But liberal groups are adamant about preventing any change to the structure of the program, which they see as the last unassailable pillar of New Deal liberalism.

So the issue here isn't whether or not it makes more sense to get the rich to pay our debts than middle-class old people; the issue is that cutting Social Security would upset those old liberals who are so emotionally attached to this last doomed symbol of New Deal liberalism. Will Obama have the character necessary to kneecap these doddering old sentimental Fondas? Bai frames this choice against an anecdote culled from Obama's past:

The body of Mr. Obama’s writing and experiences before he became a presidential candidate would suggest that he is instinctively pragmatic, typical of an emerging generation that sees all political dogma — be it ’60s liberalism or ’80s conservatism — as anachronistic. Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat, referring to the shrinking caucus of fiscally conservative members of the party.

In a 2005 blog post that may be as valuable as either of his books in identifying the inner president, then-Senator Obama castigated his own party’s ideological activists for their attacks on Democratic senators who had voted to confirm John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice. “To the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, ‘true’ progressive vision for our country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward,” Mr. Obama, who voted against confirming Chief Justice Roberts, wrote then.

So in other words, those of us who think robbing Social Security a second time to pay for the continuation of the obscene Bush tax cuts -- well, that's "demanding fealty to the one" and "brooking no dissent" and lacking "thougtfulness and openness to new ideas."

On the other hand, approving those Social Security cuts and green-lighting the continuation of those insane tax breaks -- tax breaks that were extremely radical even by Republican standards when Bush originally passed them amid two preposterously expensive war efforts -- well, that's being "pragmatic" and seeing "all dogma " as "anachronistic."

Here's what this all comes down to, dogma or no dogma: who is going to pay for a) the Bush tax cuts b) the bank bailouts and c) the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? If you want to get there by making janitors and pipe-fitters wait until they're 69 to retire, raise your hand. If you want to get there by making Jamie Dimon rent out his 900-foot rooftop terrace in Chicago two nights a year, raise your hand.

The really infuriating thing? Bai has it backwards. The real consensus, i.e. the consensus of actual human beings, outside Washington, overwhelmingly backs the idea of not fucking with Social Security benefits and ending the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $250,000. In fact, only 26% of Americans support extending the cuts for everybody.

So when Bai talks about "bipartisanship" and suggests that extending the Bush cuts is a move to the center, what he's talking about is the Washington consensus.

In some very vague way I suppose it could be argued that Barack Obama crawling into bed with John Boehner represents "post-partisanship," but if you want to talk about building actual political bridges, the only meaningful way to achieve that is through the union of voters on the left who want to end the Bush tax cuts, and the voters on the right who want to end the Bush tax cuts. Unite the elderly Democrats who want to hold on to their Social Security Benefits and the elderly Republicans who want the same thing. That's bipartisanship, but not in the way these Silk Road types like it.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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