Budget posturing is a game, and the left is losing
Today is Budget Day — Obama unveils his FY 2012 budget proposal — and political reporters the land over are aflutter. I’m being bombarded with press releases, think tank analyses, denunciations, and counter-denunciations. Politico is having multiple Os.
Meh. Ryan Avent gets it right: it’s political theater, and poor theater at that. Congress controls the budget, not Obama — specifically the House of Representatives, currently controlled by Republican radicals. Everyone’s positioning themselves for political battles to come.
So the nitty-gritty details of Obama’s budget don’t much matter. Congress will do what it will do. What matters is the larger framing war, which currently features layer upon layer of deception and stupidity. Whee!
House Republicans are loudly demanding spending cuts based on their purported concern about the deficit. But that concern is entirely fraudulent. Republicans don’t care about the deficit. (It really can’t be said enough.)
As evidence, witness the their’ continuing resolution. It doesn’t touch any of the major categories of federal spending — defense, the security state, entitlements. They are, after all, popular! It doesn’t mess with fossil fuel subsidies; in fact, Republicans are vigorously defending them against Obama’s proposal to cut them.
Instead House Republicans choose an arbitrary level of cuts ($100 billion) designed to sound big to distracted voters and proceeded to take it out of programs either beloved of liberals (Pell grants, EPA) or seen as benefiting liberal constituencies (food stamps).
Against this grotesquerie, Obama is trying to position himself as the sensible adult in the room, which in today’s political environment means some cuts that hurt poor people (like cuts to LIHEAP, which subsidizes low-income heating bills), just not a lot of cuts that hurt poor people. Some cuts to EPA’s budget, just not huge cuts. Etc.
The basic problem is that Obama is operating on the other side’s playing field. Decades of relentless conservative agit-prop have convinced the public that taxing is bad, spending is bad, government is bad, and all sensible people agree government spending must be cut. Rather than pushing back against that myth directly — which admittedly would be a tough sell, given that half the Democratic Senate caucus buys it — Obama is trying to maneuver as best he can within its confines. He’s trying to get specific, so Republicans have to defend particular cuts, which are rarely popular. He’s trying to argue that cuts need to be balanced with investments. Given the constraints, he’s doing reasonably well.
Those constraints are proving disastrous, though. The U.S. faces enormous challenges and to meet them it’s going to have to raise more revenue and spend more money. “Big government” is not the point of the activity, of course. Only in conservative imaginations does anyone like big government as such. The point is to adapt and prosper. If taxes, defense, and entitlements are off the table — if discretionary spending cuts are the only source of revenue — we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the future.