America didn’t vote for a “grand bargain”

Listen up, Democrats: Obama didn't win by promising a compromise on entitlement reform. He won despite it

Topics: Entitlement reform, national debt, Medicare, Medicaid, John Boehner, Federal Deficit, Social Security, Barack Obama, "grand bargain",

America didn't vote for a "grand bargain" (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

By 10 p.m. on Tuesday, it was all over but the shouting — the shouting of Karl Rove, incredulous that Fox News’ “decision desk” would dare deploy the best statistical evidence at its disposal to call Ohio for the president; the shouting of wingnuts everywhere that — no fair! — Obama only won because of superstorm Sandy (because demonstrated competence in running the government is no reason to choose someone to … run your government); the shouting of the joyous throngs at McCormick Place waiting to receive their new second-term president. In my Hyde Park apartment just five blocks from the president’s home, soon all around me was jubilation. A second Barack Obama term! I alone seemed to feel the disquiet. This reelection troubles me. It troubles me because of the signal it may send to some of the people running the Democratic Party, and to Barack Obama, a signal that may threaten the long-term health of the Democratic Party itself.

I heard Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator who is close to Obama, on the radio the next morning boasting that he was one of the Democrats on the Simpson-Bowles Commission to vote for its recommendations — recommendations that included, in addition to changes in the tax code meant to increase revenue (while also cutting tax rates), diminishing eligibility and benefits for Medicare and Social Security. Though the commission failed to reach consensus, making its proposals moot, it was aiming at just the sort of “grand bargain” that Obama has consistently and quietly spoken about as his sort of beau ideal for what a successful presidency would look like. Durbin went on to say he hoped a grand bargain might be wrapped up in the next calendar year, before congressmen and senators became preoccupied with reelection. And maybe it will. As the blogger Lambert Strether impishly put it on Election Day: “I’m betting the Ds, who wouldn’t abolish the filibuster for health care or the stimulus, will abolish it if that’s what it takes to kick the hippies and gut Social Security.”

Fellow Democrats, let’s hope not. Please, please, please, let’s hope not.



The goal, with or without a filibuster reform, would be to “correct” a supposed structural budget crisis that liberal economists like Paul Krugman and Dean Baker convincingly point out doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the increase in the deficit was caused directly by the financial crisis and the housing bubble, and had nothing to do with the middle-class entitlement programs a grand bargain would cut. What’s more, the deficit is perfectly sustainable in any event. As for the record national debt, in fact the rest of the world’s eagerness to lend to America at next to no cost is in fact a glorious opportunity to increase American well-being, something not to be feared but welcomed. (America’s debt to GDP ratio is about 70 percent. Japan’s is over 225 percent — and that island, with the world’s third-largest economy, has not sunk into the sea. In fact, from 2001 to 2010 its economic growth has generally surpassed ours.)

America’s government is not too big. It is not “out of control.” Measured by the number of public sector employees compared to the overall population, in fact, it is at its smallest size since 1968. The Democratic compulsion to take the lead in making it smaller, to “control” it, is in itself a serious historic problem —and a perverse one at that. For it doesn’t work. Bill Clinton tried it in the 1990s, working with Republicans in Congress both to obliterate the deficit caused by Republican budgetary mismanagement, and “end welfare as we know it.”

What happened to the resulting budgetary surplus they created? Republican mismanagement and ideological extremism obliterated it, and the public acted like no miracle save for drastic cuts in middle-class entitlements could ever bring it back; media gatekeepers immediately forgot that Democrats had been “responsible” fiscal stewards, just like much of the populace simply forgot what Clinton did with welfare. After Hurricane Katrina, the story was that black residents of New Orleans had become so enervated by their reliance on welfare checks they were too dumb to get out of the rain. It was as if America’s newly stripped-bare welfare system’s time limits, work requirements and block grants had been thrown down a memory hole — even as, seven years later in our current unemployment crisis, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, welfare reform now greatly contributes to increased rates of poverty.

A simple historical fact: There is no political payoff for Democrats in presiding over governmental austerity. The evidence goes far back to long before Bill Clinton. In the mid-1970s, the first superstar of the Democratic austerity movement, William Proxmire, a budgetary obsessive whose campaign bumper stickers read “Waste Will Bury Us,” began awarding a monthly “Golden Fleece Award” to the government expenditure he judged the most wasteful — a clown show that frequently had no more effect than making things difficult for scientists doing basic research that frequently led to revolutionary breakthroughs. Austerity was the ideology of Gov. Jerry Brown in California, too — and also the man who beat Brown for the Democratic presidential nominee in 1976, Jimmy Carter, who announced, in his 1978 State of the Union address that “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or provide energy.”

What Carter said wasn’t even true; for instance, he did deploy the power of government to reduce inflation, by appointing a Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, an act of deliberate austerity that induced the recession that defeated him. Like I said, there was no political payoff: Ronald Reagan, depicting Carter on the campaign trail as just another Democratic spendthrift, defeated him, reappointed Volcker, then harvested the political credit when Volcker’s governmental policies did slay inflation. And then came the amnesia: When, 18 years later, Bill Clinton gave much the same State of the Union address — “The era of big government is over” — people acted like no Democrat had ever said anything like that before.

Now Barack Obama, oblivious, may be barreling into a yet more dangerous austerity dare, perhaps squeezing the two most effective and popular government programs in existence — Social Security and Medicare. Credibly pledging not just to preserve them but to extend them has been how generations of Democratic politicians have turned millions into habitual Democratic voters.

Barack Obama didn’t win by promising a grand bargain to rein them in. He won despite it. Democrats won’t win in the future by “reforming” entitlements. If they do it, they will lose, precisely because of it, and possibly for generations. If he believes things to be otherwise, God help the party of Jefferson and Jackson.

Rick Perlstein is the author of "The Invisible Bridge," "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus"

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>