Why the far right is winning the budget wars -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Apr 12, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column In budget wars, the GOP demands the impossible in which Gene writes: "There?s no question who won last week?s showdown. The outcome ? nearly $40 billion in painful cuts ? goes well beyond the GOP?s initial demands. That Democrats were able to save a few pet programs is something but not much. You really don?t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing."

Hi, everybody. Welome to our weekly therapy session. Well, at least we still have a functioning government, such as it is. I feared we might all be sitting in the dark, but the 11th-hour deal Saturday night kept the greatest nation on Earth in business. Now that we take a closer look at the deal, it's as we suspected -- lousy. Today's column is about the GOP's take-no-prisoners negotiating style, which once again has carried the day. Sigh. Let's begin.

Gene, you hit the nail square on the head with your column on budget negotiations. The radical Republicans are not only drinking Obama's milkshake, they are eating his lunch, his dinner, and bedtime snack. That Paul Ryan can put forth such an outrageous "Path to Prosperity" budget, that will, to use your words "change the essence of the relationship between citizens and their government", and not be challenged by the Democrats is appalling. He is not only gutting Medicare and the social safety net, he has the unmitigated gall to call for MORE tax cuts for the wealthy! Obama needs to call these guys out. He keeps letting them claim that their efforts are aimed at deficit reduction. Why doesn't he dismiss Ryan's proposal as not being serious, if Ryan is not willing to raise taxes, especially on those that have done so well during the Bush years? Why doesn't Obama propose something to counter, such as raising the cap on salaries subject to Social Security taxes? The radical right would squeal like stuck pigs, but they are going to do that no matter what Obama proposes. Obama needs to stop being such a pushover. He needs to stop running for President and, gosh darn it, be President.

Well, he does have to run for president and be president at the same time. But your point is well taken about the non-seriousness of a "Path to Prosperity" that rules out any tax increase, even for the wealthiest among us. Come on, people. I think the president will offer new ideas, but I wish I could be optimistic that realism on the budget will be able to cut through all the fantasy-based noise.

The words "general welfare" are in the constitution, but they don't mean either socialism (nationalizing health care, higher taxation, etc) nor fascism (corporate welfare and subsidies to private sector). I'm all for massive cuts in public and private "welfare." That's not what made this country great.

Um, so American agriculture and industry never benefited from subsidies or tariffs? You'd like to do away with Medicare/Medicaid and let the old and the poor just fend for themselves? That's certainly not what made this country great.

. . . with the help of the far-right media machine. Eugene, thank you for this op-ed. I totally agree with it and have heard Bill Maher and others make similar points. Here's my question: Is this strategy working because the far-right media backs up any proposals -- in a BIG way -- the republican/tea party comes up with, and attacks ANYTHING the democrats do? I'm afraid that if the left were to try this strategy, 'death panels' would appear tame in comparison.

The far-right media machine is more of an enabler than a decider. Republicans were disciplined and united when they were in the minority in both houses of Congress. Now there is an Establishment vs. Tea Party split -- but they managed to use it to their advantage. Boehner could essentially say, "Hey, look, I've got crazy people over here, no telling what they might do -- unless you hand over $40 billion, right now." Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, yet clearly they lost this round. 

Why is Paul Ryan (R-WI) being attacked by leftist Democrats like yourself, when in your article you fail to mention that Democrats could not pass a budget in Fall 2010, when they had full control of the House and Senate ? Because Ryan's plans would defund (rightly) the Abortion Archipelago (Planned Parenthood), the leftist mouthpiece NPR, and the mindless Obamacare, the Congressman is to be vilified ? I just cannot see why my tax dollars will go to care for killing unborn babies and rather than being used for bolstering defense research ?

In my previous column I noted, for the umpteenth time, that Democrats put themselves in this position by not passing a budget when they had the power, and the duty, to do so. Ryan's plan deserves villification, in my view, because it proposes a radical reshaping of government under the guise of deficit reduction. And I believe his vision of how to reshape our government is wrong.

Unfortunately, I agree with your comments today. And I am apalled by the agreement to have a health care vote in the Senate - and by the cuts that have been made without any effort to make the rich pay their fair share for the good of the entire citizenry. What chance do you think there is that the Congressional Democrats can reshape the debate? Is Chuck Shumer up to the job? Harry Reid hasn't exactly been effective. And do you think the president is up to it? What chance is there that those of us who don't agree with the Republicans and the far right have realisitic hope that we won't return to the pre-FDR and even Robber Baron days?

Aren't we already living in the new Gilded Age? Income distribution is getting there. We've seen forceful consistency from Republicans. A bit of that from Democrats would be nice. And it's not a question of Reid or Schumer. It has to be Reid and Schumer and Pelosi and Obama and all the rest.

In your article yesterday you wrote as if the game was still being played. I think Obama has already lost. He didn't do a thing to stick up for a reasonable FY11 budget, and before that he didn't present a long-term budget that did anything to balance the budget. The Repulicans did, in Ryans plan, and even if it's wildly unreasonable, it's a a plan and they'll get most of what they want. Democrats will be lucky to keep the tax cut for the rich above a maximum 25% level. If cuts even come close to that, Republican dreams of eventually eliminating Medicaid, Mediciare and every other social welfare program are will become reality. There won't be any money left to fund these programs.

There you have it -- the beast will have been starved. The thing is, though, that people don't want Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to go away or to be changed unrecognizably. The honest discussion we need to have is about what we want government to do -- and are willing to pay for. Ryan's plan doesn't pose that question forthrightly, because it pretends to preserve the safety net while actually doing no such thing.

While you see the general welfare of the country as an ever-expanding federal government, the better case is that the current bloated government and its crushing debt disserve the general welfare of the people. It certainly seems that is what the people said last November. You're more than a bit out of step and touch.

The deficit is a disservice. As for bloated government, you know, this is a big complicated country and it's inevitably going to have a big, complicated government. Of course we should find and eliminate waste, but the federal government is still going to be a massive enterprise. Now, speaking of disservice to the nation, does it make sense to seek huge cuts in government spending while the economy is struggling out of the worst recession since the Great Depression? I don't think so.

Sending this is advance: I've been struck again and again how adept the GOP is in framing questions, controlling narratives, etc. It seems that they've created a very successful script that not only defines an issue a particular (and very slanted) way, but makes questioning that script somehow un-American. That's what propaganda is, I suppose, but that begs the question: Why are the Dems so apparently clueless in how to respond? The GOP's budget proposals are terribly skewed against the poor and helpless, which should make for the easy creation of a powerful counter-narrative, but I just don't see it happening.

I once suggested to a senior administration official that the White House should have an Office of Pithy Phrases. The right has been much quicker to define the language in which issues are debated, thus tilting the battlefield. Progressives have gotten a bit better at this, but not much.

There are so many ways to solve the entitlement issue, but all I hear are solutions that affect the poor and the defenseless. For instance the income cap on SS hasn't been increased since 1986. Why not put in a donut at $106,000 with contributions beginning again at $206,000? There are so many ways and all the GOP seem to be able to do is reward the rich and hurt the poor.

I'll just note that Paul Ryan was careful to dodge Social Security entirely. He's not THAT crazy.

Im conflicted, I like the responsibility, but isn't taking care of our poor one of the things that keeps us from being, say, Angola? And why social programs? I like asking the tough questions, but there are plenty more, such as, why do we have an embassy in every country? Why not one for every region? Why do we still have bombers? Can't fighters do the deed? If Democrats find themselves on the ropes, why still be chicken? This is why we lose elections.

You're right that there are other questions that need to be posed. I don't see how you can take a serious look at our long-term fiscal woes without examining the gargantuan cost of maintaining the defense establishment.

From Hamilton's belief in a federal government, you incorrectly extrapolate that, in essence, anything goes if OK'd by Washington. Hamilton decidely did not believe in an omnipotent federal government, his experience with Great Britain had illustrated the dangers of that. Any student of U.S. history knows that and your invoking him to support your view of massive federal powers is as inaccurate as it is dangerous. Go read the Federalist Papers and come back.

Nobody believes in an omnipotent federal government, but Hamilton surely believed in a strong one. That was why he argued for the federal government to assume the debts that the states had accrued during the Revolutionary War. Jefferson fought bitterly against this idea, but Washington settled the question in Hamilton's favor -- and with it, the idea that these United States are a collective enterprise, including in the fiscal sense. As any student of U.S. history knows.

Eugene, I find it quite maddening that this administration can't see and/or won't make the simplest arguments in support of its positions. Take Paul Ryan's budget (please!) - Under this "fiscally conservative" plan, the US will be borrowing 20 Trillion dollars between 2012 and when the budget is balanced, which won't occur until the 2030s. The simplest argument for the Obama Administration to make is that there is no dispute between Republicans and Democrats over whether we should be living within our means - both parties acknowledge that we won't be doing so for a long time to come. The difference is just in the paths we can take to get there.

Precisely. Ryan's plan does nothing meaningful to address the main driver of our mounting deficits -- the rise in health care costs. He proposes that the federal government reduce its contribution to paying these costs, but doesn't slow the rise of the costs themselves. There are ways to do this, of course, as other industrialized nations have learned. We could go to a single-payer health care system. We could at least, for crying out loud, have a public-option health plan. But just choking off the federal dollars won't do anything, because costs will continue to rise and ultimately, one way or another, those costs will get paid.

Why do you feel it is 'far-right' to believe in curtailing spending, at least to a degree, closer to incoming revenue levels? After all, there is a limit on revenues and as such, there has to be limits on spending too.

Right, but there are two ways to reach that balance -- cut spending and increase revenues. To take the latter off the table is disingenuous. 

It seems to me you don't need a whole column to figure it out. The GOP had a strong Point-of-View and the guts to stick with it!

Everybody's an editor...

Cutting $38 billion from a $3.7 TRILLION budget is painful? That's like cutting $10 from a household budget of $100,000. It's NOTHING! Are you saying there is no way people can survive without cutting any spending from our INCREDIBLY bloated budget? And if we can't cut any spending what do you think our tax rates should rise to in the next few years?

The level of pain depends on where you cut. This exercise was limited to the relatively small slice of the budget that includes social programs. Who decided this spending was "discretionary" while defense spending is not?

Gene, I'll be honest, I'm a conservative who pays more in taxes than most people make a year. And while I'll concede that taxes might have to go up to reduce deficits, I never hear anything "serious" from the progressive left regarding healthcare. Why won't someone stand up and demand that the amount of Medicare dollars spent on an individual be weighted towards age and expected quality of life? Our current system allows the government to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep an 85 year old alive for 4 more months. That makes no economic sense, and to the extent that money could go elsewhere is morally indefensible unless you fundamentally believe there are unlimited government funds. The moral high ground is not protecting seniors' benefits at all costs, nor is it insisting on being "fair" and delivering what was promised by a different generation 40 years ago. It's re-starting a debate about what's reasonable for government to achieve and prioritizing where those dollars go. The elderly certainly should not be near the top.

When the question of end-of-life treatment was raised during the health-care debate, Republican demagogues screamed about "death panels" and "pulling the plug on Grandma." So what incentive do progressives have to raise the issue again?


And that's it for today, folks. My time is up. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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