Who’s winning the Democrats’ civil war?

Economic liberals or the "pro-business" crowd? As the president's budget drama plays out, we may soon find out

Topics: Social Security, cutting social security, Chained CPI, Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Ed Rendell, Elizabeth Warren, Minimum wage, Tax cuts, Benefits, Editor's Picks, , ,

Who's winning the Democrats' civil war?Former Governor Ed Rendell, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Credit: APCarolyn Kaster/Reuters/Gary Cameron)

When it comes to economic issues, Democrats are not a united party. There are economic liberals, in the vein of Elizabeth Warren, who believe that very rich people who lead a good life can afford to pay more in taxes to support basic services for struggling people, seniors, and others who are vulnerable. And then there are “pro-business” Democrats, or what might be called SPECs (Socially Progressive Economic Conservatives). These are the pro-fracking, self-described “entitlement reformers” — like omnipresent former Gov. Ed Rendell — who talk about the need to keep taxes low and make “bold” decisions like cutting the social safety net, in an effort to fix the debt, restore “balance” and “get serious.”

While the split is not discussed as often as it might be, these two camps stand far apart on economic issues, and, in some ways, are fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party. And, with President Obama’s newly reiterated proposal to cut Social Security through his chained CPI plan, a big test is approaching to see which wing of the party will prevail.

Obama’s offer on Social Security is divisive for several reasons. First, there’s the very real effect it will have on Americans relying on their benefits to get by month to month. By revising downward the cost of living index used to compute benefits, the policy change would reduce the amount that some on fixed incomes – including disabled Americans, such as veterans — live on (precisely how many is unclear, as the administration reportedly supports “financial protections for low-income and very old beneficiaries”). This is something economic liberals cannot support; for the SPECs, this is tolerable if part of a larger deal.

Second, there’s the symbolism and precedent of cutting into New Deal-style programs. The first cut to popular, essential programs is always the most difficult; once it’s been done, and that toe is in the water, there’s the concern that future reductions could be more easily achieved. That’s why the symbolism of a Democratic president attaching his name to – and owning – the cuts is so controversial and worrying for liberals. How hard would it be for Republicans to push future cuts through, when this is now a mainstream Democratic policy?

Beyond these issues lies a more philosophical one, which comes down to different conceptions of “balance.” For SPECs and many others in Washington, balance means a plan in which both political parties give up something they don’t want. If Democrats and Republicans are both unhappy, the thinking goes, that means the plan is balanced and good.

Liberals see it differently. By their thinking, “balance” must incorporate the broader circumstances of those impacted by the policy in question. If rich people have every advantage in life – wealth, tax breaks and loopholes, healthcare, food security, the ability to influence political campaigns, etc. – and less well-off folks are disadvantaged in all the same categories, then balance calls for a policy that helps to shift things in the other direction a bit. In other words, one camp sees balance as a political end (which, incidentally, can be easily manipulated by positioning and negotiating strategies) and the other sees it as a policy imperative with real-world implications.

The question undergirding this particular debate is twofold. First, is more money actually needed to fund Social Security? And if so, how should one pay for a shortfall? In fact, Social Security is solvent and has not contributed to the debt. But pretend you don’t believe that. Then the question becomes: If you needed revenue to pay for Social Security, how would you generate it? This is the crux of the divide.

One option is to cut benefits for those in need, which Obama has proposed to do, backed by groups like Fix the Debt, the outfit funded by billionaire Pete Peterson (Rendell sits on the board, along with other SPECs, Republicans, and Simpson and Bowles). Another option is to raise the cap on income that’s taxed by Social Security. Currently, that number is in the $110,000 range, meaning any income one makes over that amount is untaxed. That’s a very regressive policy and if one wanted to generate more revenue to “pay for” Social Security, raising this cap would be an alternative to cutting Grandma’s benefits.

Asked about the chained CPI scenario, liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown told Salon, “This is unacceptable. There are common-sense ways we can reduce the deficit that do not demand sacrifice from the most vulnerable Americans.”

But there is not consensus in the party on this, obviously. This should not actually surprise anyone, because liberals and SPECs disagree on a number of economic policies: how to treat unions, tax policy, public education spending, minimum wage, the wisdom of austerity, and so on. But with Obama presenting this as part of his budget proposal, he has forced the question and exposed this rift.

So far, there are early signs that the party is willing to buck its leader – and that liberals may prevail. A majority of House Democrats circulated a letter in February expressing their opposition to chained CPI, and a key congressional source tells Salon he expects that opposition to hold, if a vote ever came to the floor. In fact, while several liberals and Democratic elected officials told Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald yesterday that they remained opposed to the policy, there were few if any Democrats coming out to support it.

That’s a reflection of the politics in the country at the moment. Sure, cuts to Social Security are never popular. And indeed, these particular ones aren’t either. But more broadly, economic liberalism has experienced an upsurge in the last year, politically and substantively. From last September’s Democratic convention, to Obama’s inaugural speech (“Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great!”), the party has recently relied on explicitly liberal rhetorical appeals. And policy-wise, the political currents have been strong enough to incite a leftward economic shift from SPECs like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a presidential wannabe who formerly preached austerity and tax cuts but now suddenly helped pass a minimum wage hike and tax increase on millionaires. This comes as initiatives to ensure paid sick leave for workers have spread throughout the country.

So if the president is moving in one direction, while his party moves in another, is he primed for a major embarrassment? Perhaps not. The likelihood, according to both Democratic and Republican congressional sources, is that he may be spared a revolt or humiliating intra-party defeat — by an unlikely ally. As they tell it, John Boehner’s refusal to accept Obama’s deal means the proposal may never even get to the House floor for a vote. Of course, if that’s the case, that’s a win for liberals, too. But if, on the other hand, Obama is somehow able to move this proposal forward, and Democrats don’t stand strong against it — well, then, it could end up that the Rendell wing of the party is the real coalition of the ascendant.

Blake Zeff is the politics editor of Salon. Email him at bzeff@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

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



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>