Reading the papers and watching the news, it’s clear we’re all supposed to think that the debt-ceiling talks have shown Republicans to be intransigent while Democrats are just trying to be responsible and pragmatic. But if political reporters were a little less eager to just buy whatever the president is trying to sell, they might notice a far more interesting storyline running through the past few weeks: a story about how very difficult it is to be a liberal in our country at the moment. The debt-ceiling debate has featured some extraordinary rhetorical and substantive contortions by the president and Senate Democrats, all of which suggest that it’s not possible to openly run on the left in today’s America.
This was plainly evident in President Obama’s speech last night, as it has been in the numerous (all too numerous) press conferences he has had over the past few weeks. Think about the bizarre and implausible story he tried to tell, a story of Obama as a befuddled outsider horrified by the three-ring circus of Washington and trying to maintain fiscal sanity. “Washington” has been running up its credit card bill, and “if we stay on the current path, our growing debt could cost us jobs and do serious damage to the economy.” Sure, government has to spend money on certain things—“things like new roads and bridges; weather satellites and food inspection; services to veterans and medical research,” not, mind you, a huge new health-care entitlement—but it has to live within its means and it hasn’t been. So, he said, he has been trying to lead the effort to solve this problem, to “live within our means by making serious, historic cuts in government spending.” This should be a bipartisan effort, he said, since “Democrats and Republicans agree on the amount of deficit reduction we need.” We need to pay the bills that congress has racked up, and he wants to do it in a balanced way, just like Ronald Reagan, but Washington is broken and Republicans won’t let common sense win out.
This is an incumbent president trying to set himself up for a re-election campaign that will have to be run against Washington—against his own record, and his own party.
Meanwhile, the under-reported quandaries of the Senate Democrats have told a similar story. For all the tales of House Republican intransigence, the real question throughout this debate has been (and still is) whether anything could pass the Senate. House Republicans have passed a long term debt-ceiling increase (“long term” now means past the next election, which certainly can’t come soon enough), and now seem poised (one hopes) to pass a short-term one too. They have also passed a budget for next year and are well along on the accompanying appropriations bills. Senate Democrats have done none of this—no budget, no appropriations for next year (except for the Veterans’ Affairs bill, on which the House and Senate agreed), no debt-ceiling increase. It is very far from clear if Obama’s “balanced” approach would have passed the Senate in any form. While John Boehner was willing to consider a version of that approach at one point, Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats killed it. Vulnerable Democratic Senators, who are after all running for office in the same country that elected the Republican House last year, don’t want to raise taxes (as Obama does) or to reform entitlement spending (as Republicans do), so they have always much preferred the “small bill” approach that Obama ridiculed last night. And rather than take a stand on budget issues, they have left it to House Republicans to make concrete proposals while they snipe and fail to act. They can’t run on a liberal platform, so they have chosen to have no platform and no agenda at all in the hope of just running against Republican Medicare reforms next year. Their main objection to the Boehner bill is that it would force them to debate debt issues again before the election.
In both cases, you see a Democratic Party incapable of openly offering a liberal agenda to voters, and compelled to pretend it has not pursued a liberal agenda these past three years. Not exactly a sign of confidence in their electoral prospects next year.