For many years now in California we’ve witnessed an extremist Republican minority in the legislature hold the state budget hostage through manipulating the “two-thirds rule” that allows a legislative minority to dictate to the majority whether any new revenues can be raised. The debt ceiling gambit that Republicans in the House of Representatives have used to tie the U.S. government in knots in recent months is simply the California GOP’s tactic writ large.
Like Governor Jerry Brown and the Democratic leadership in Sacramento, President Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership in Washington will capitulate (after many paralyzing months of hopes for “compromise”) and enact an all-cuts budget with no “shared sacrifice” in the form of higher taxes imposed on the rich and corporations.
The debt ceiling “deal” might postpone the next budget confrontation past the 2012 elections, but it will shred social programs that serve working people and are vital to key Democratic constituencies, while tearing apart the broader social contract between the government and its citizens. (At a time when the otherwise gridlocked Congress and administration can pull together and pass with celerity $649 billion for one-year’s defense budget the debt ceiling fight is all about priorities in any case.)
The Beltway political commentary on the debt ceiling hostage standoff has also mirrored the California experience. Political pundits in the corporate media never explain why they believe threatening to throw the nation’s economy over a cliff is a legitimate political tactic. Instead they rely on the tired old false equivalency and faux balance. Yet we all know that if the situation were reversed and Nancy Pelosi had done the exact same thing to President George W. Bush when she was Speaker of the House, these same political commentators would be putting forth all manner of high-minded Constitutional arguments why holding the debt ceiling hostage was an outrageous and illegitimate act. That’s how it works in California; and that’s how it apparently works now for the nation. If you ever wanted proof that in the larger media context progressives and right-wing Republicans are not treated equally you need not look anywhere else.
In California, we didn’t elect Jerry Brown and Democratic majorities in the Assembly and the Senate in 2010 in order to roll back years of progressive social policies and systematically dismantle vital public sector institutions. But that is what we got. Similarly, we didn’t elect Obama in 2008 because he promised to gut social programs that serve the interests of working people. But that is what we’re getting.
Like Governor Brown, President Obama has been forced into doing the dirty work for the Republican Right. And like California, low-income women and children, the elderly, college students, public servants, and workers of all kinds are going to bear the brunt of the “shared sacrifice.”
President Obama has already moved far in the Republicans’ direction when it comes to prioritizing cutting the deficit over job creation. He now seems to pride himself and measure his political success by the level of anger, betrayal, and demoralization experienced by his working-class political base. For him it’s not about governing anymore but positioning himself for 2012.
If Obama is reelected in 2012 it won’t be because of the merits of his record, but the inadequacies of his Republican opponent. (A nine percent unemployment rate will see to that.) Hearing him talk about chopping “entitlements” is the polar opposite of everything he claimed to stand for in 2008. Long ago he tossed progressives overboard and allowed the interests of his own constituencies to languish in pursuit of some weird fictional concept of “bipartisanship.”
And therein lies the tragedy. Obama’s presidency over the last two and half years has coincided with the sharpest contraction and rollback of the public sector since the 1980s (especially at the local level where the cuts really hurt). Historically (from the time of the New Deal anyway), broad progressive social change has only been possible when a Democratic president sidelined right-wing Republicans. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t address the crisis of the Great Depression by seeking at every turn “compromise” with Republicans and “bipartisanship” (like Obama does). The Republican Right of the era denounced FDR as a traitor to his class and a closet communist. Medicare and Medicaid weren’t passed with anything close to a “bipartisan” consensus. Yet Obama has insisted all along that every move he makes must have the imprimatur of a group of chimerical Republican “moderates.”
It’s fine to hear important and smart commentators like Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and others call for more Keynesian methods to address the failure of the private sector to produce jobs, but it’s too late for that now. The savage cuts at the state and local levels would already make any new federal stimulus (unless of vast New Deal proportions) ineffective. The economic crisis and Obama’s lukewarm handling of it gives progressives precious little “hope” and “change” to look forward to going into 2012.