So the debt deal has finally been reached. As expected, the agreement arrives in a form that right-thinking people everywhere can feel terrible about with great confidence.
The general consensus is that for the second time in three years, a gang of financial terrorists has successfully extorted the congress and the White House, threatening to blow up the planet if they didn’t get what they wanted.
Back in 2008, the congress and George Bush rewarded Hank Paulson and Wall Street for pulling the Cleavon-Little-“the-next-man-makes-a-move-the-n—er-gets-it” routine by tossing trillions of bailout dollars at the same people who had wrecked the economy.
Now, Barack Obama has surrendered control of the budget to the Tea Party, whose operatives in congress used the same suicide-bomber tactic, threatening a catastrophic default unless the Democrats committed to a regime of steep spending cuts without any tax increases on the wealthy.
Commentators everywhere are killing the president for his seemingly astonishing level of ball-less-ness. Both the New York Times house editorial and the Nobel prizewinning liberal columnist Paul Krugman are insisting the president should have invoked extreme measures to counter the radicals on the other side, using emergency legal tactics to unilaterally raise the debt limit. Or, at least, he should have threatened to do this, according to Krugman:
And even now, the Obama administration could have resorted to legal maneuvering to sidestep the debt ceiling, using any of several options…
At the very least, Mr. Obama could have used the possibility of a legal end run to strengthen his bargaining position. Instead, however, he ruled all such options out from the beginning.
Is Krugman right? Probably. In a perfect world, where the president was what he is supposed to be, i.e. a representative of that majority of American voters who elected him, that is what a good president would probably have done. No matter what the situation was with the deficit, or what cuts were or were not justified, a real leader would have invoked such powers at the very least to set a precedent that the government is not to be held hostage by irresponsible lunatics bent on invoking a catastrophe for purely political reasons.
But that isn’t what happened. What did happen? The popular take is that Obama is a weak leader of a weak party who was pushed around by canny right-wing extremists. Observers like pollster Sydney Greenberg portray Obama and the Democrats as a group of politically tone-deaf bureaucrats who fail because the public associates them with a corrupt government that benefits the rich and connected.
The Democrats, Greenberg argues, could change their situation by showing the public that they genuinely represent the interests of ordinary working people. In his piece, “Why Voters Tune Out Democrats,” he offers a list of things Democrats could do to turn things around:
What should Democrats do?
The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.
IF they want to win the trust of the public, Democrats should propose taxing lobbyist expenses and excessive chief executive bonuses and put a small fee on the sale of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments. By radically simplifying the tax code to allow only a few deductions, the Democrats would generate new revenue and remove the loopholes that allow special interests to win favorable treatment …
I think everything Greenberg says is true — except for the part about it being possible. His list of solutions would make sense as advice to a real political party.
But to a bunch of hired stooges put in office to lend an air of democratic legitimacy to what has essentially become a bureaucratic-oligarchic state, what good does such advice do? Would it have made sense to send the Supreme Soviet under Andropov or Brezhnyev a list of policy ideas for enhancing the civil liberties of Soviet citizens?
The Democrats aren’t failing to stand up to Republicans and failing to enact sensible reforms that benefit the middle class because they genuinely believe there’s political hay to be made moving to the right. They’re doing it because they do not represent any actual voters. I know I’ve said this before, but they are not a progressive political party, not even secretly, deep inside. They just play one on television.
For evidence, all you have to do is look at this latest fiasco.
The Republicans in this debt debate fought like wolves or alley thugs, biting and scratching and using blades and rocks and shards of glass and every weapon they could reach.
The Democrats, despite sitting in the White House, the most awesome repository of political power on the planet, didn’t fight at all. They made a show of a tussle for a good long time — as fixed fights go, you don’t see many that last into the 11th and 12th rounds, like this one did — but at the final hour, they let out a whimper and took a dive.
We probably need to start wondering why this keeps happening. Also, this: if the Democrats suck so bad at political combat, then how come they continue to be rewarded with such massive quantities of campaign contributions? When the final tally comes in for the 2012 presidential race, who among us wouldn’t bet that Barack Obama is going to beat his Republican opponent in the fundraising column very handily? At the very least, he won’t be out-funded, I can almost guarantee that.
And what does that mean? Who spends hundreds of millions of dollars for what looks, on the outside, like rank incompetence?
It strains the imagination to think that the country’s smartest businessmen keep paying top dollar for such lousy performance. Is it possible that by “surrendering” at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?