Monday, March 19, 2012

Popularity in a democracy

In a way, this is a followup to last week's post about Barack Obama's deficits - not because there's really much more to say about that, but because of a couple of new reports.

However, I've got a point I want to make, too - a point about the difficulty of doing what's right, especially compared to how easy it can be to do what's wrong.

But first, from TPM, here's a chart that compares the increase in government spending under Reagan and under Obama, in their first terms when both faced high unemployment:

Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis illustrates a key difference between Reagan’s first term and Obama’s: the pliancy of the Congresses they had to work with. Despite the fact that it was controlled by Democrats, Reagan’s Congress was ultimately accommodative, and the result was significant fiscal expansion, which likely helped bring down the unemployment rate. [Which definitely helped him win re-election, because Reagan wasn't wildly popular his first term, even after surviving an assassination attempt.]

Despite presiding over a Democratic Congress, Obama enjoyed no such co-operation. Serial GOP filibusters limited the extent to which he could use deficit spending and temporary tax cuts to hasten economic recovery. Republicans bucked historically bipartisan policies to thwart the president. And when they took over the House in 2011, Republicans pursued an austerity agenda, and, separately, spooked credit markets by taking the government to the brink of default. All of these factors, combined with contraction at the state and local levels, offset the stimulative policies Obama secured at the beginning of his term. And that prefigured a significantly slower labor market recovery than Reagan enjoyed.

As I've pointed out before, Republicans today aren't interested in boosting our weak economy or increasing employment - just the reverse, in fact. Their number one goal from the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency - from before he even took office, in fact - was to ensure his defeat in 2012. They've admitted that many times.

And an improving economy is exactly what they don't want. But what if Democrats had decided the same thing in Reagan's first term? We've always had politics in America, but in the past, both parties put our country first. That's just not the case anymore.

Oh, and note on the above graph what that "big spender" Barack Obama is actually doing. It's no wonder that it's a slow, gradual climb out of this economic collapse.

Here's the other part, also from TPM, about the "spin wars" over Obama's budget:

A new Congressional Budget Office report has reignited the spin wars over President Obama’s budget, and Republicans are eagerly blasting articles to reporters about how the administration would explode deficits and debt if left to its own devices.

But this line of attack is based on a questionable premise, familiar to veterans of the past year’s budget wars.

The key to all of these stories is the CBO baseline. Officially, the budget analysts there use “current law” to gauge the expected impact of policy proposals, whether from the Hill or the White House. But under “current law” all the Bush tax cuts will expire, all of the sequestration spending cuts triggered by the Super Committee’s failure will take effect, and other parts of the budget will tighten automatically, in ways lawmakers and the president are determined to avoid. Relative to all of that austerity under current law, indeed, Obama’s budget blows up the budget. So too does every Republican budget proposal and every proposal put forward by influential outside fiscal policy groups.

CBO also uses an “alternative fiscal scenario” based largely on current policy. And the changes Obama proposes to current policy — the world we currently inhabit where the Bush tax cuts are still in effect, and sequestration hasn’t happened — accomplish one of fiscal policymakers’ key goals: reducing medium-term deficits and stabilizing the debt as a share of GDP over the next several years.

Get that? This is very similar to what I tried to show last week. Republicans are trying to spin Barack Obama as a big spender who's vastly increasing our federal budget deficit. And that tends to work with the average voter, who's woefully ill-informed about these things.

I mean, their claim sounds plausible, doesn't it? After all, they're comparing Obama's proposal with the CBO baseline. But the CBO baseline includes things that aren't going to happen, that no one in Congress is going to let happen.

For example, this assumes that the Bush tax cuts will end as scheduled. I wish they would, but even the Democrats don't want to raise middle-class taxes. And the Republicans have drawn a line in the sand against any tax increases at all, even - or maybe especially - for the wealthy.

I'll get back to this in a minute, but let me first point out another example. Current law has scheduled massive across-the-board spending cuts because of the failure of that "Super Committee" on deficit reduction last fall. Those cuts, to domestic and military spending alike, were supposed to be an incentive for both sides to come to an agreement, but Republicans flatly refused every compromise.

They simply would not raise taxes on the wealthy, under any circumstances (in fact, the Republicans on the committee actually proposed lowering the top tax rate even more).

But Republicans are already saying that they won't cut military spending, either, no matter what they agreed to last year. So those cuts simply aren't going to happen. No matter what, that "baseline" isn't going to happen. Pretending otherwise is just deceitful political spin.

And that brings me to the point I want to make. In a democracy, doing the right thing is often unpopular, while doing the wrong thing can be very popular indeed. And when you've got a political party which cares only for its own political advantage, that can make things exceedingly difficult for our country.

Take the Bush tax cuts, for example. Cutting taxes is always popular. Even when the benefit went overwhelmingly to the wealthiest Americans, Bush's tax cuts were easy to support and hard to oppose.

This is a democracy, after all. And politicians need to get re-elected. Popularity matters! Bush's tax cuts were absolutely the wrong thing to do, creating massive budget deficits and a bubble in arcane financial instruments, but the most opponents were able to do was make them temporary. They were supposed to expire in ten years.

And they should expire. With deficits screaming higher, the very first thing we should do is end the Bush tax cuts. But tax increases are unpopular. Even just letting them expire as scheduled will have your opponents screaming "tax increase!" Heck, Republicans are already screaming that, even though the Democrats only want to let them expire for the one-percent!

And although the majority of Americans - the majority, even, of Republicans, according to polls - think that taxes should be increased on the wealthy, it's still a very dangerous move in a democracy, because your opponent will attack you for "raising taxes."

Think back to some of the other terrible decisions we've made in recent years - and how difficult it is to undo them. After the 9/11 attacks, war was wildly popular in America. It didn't matter if it made sense, not in our positive orgy of über-patriotism after the attacks. It didn't matter if we had an exit strategy. It didn't even matter that we weren't going to get the man who actually attacked us.

After all, there was no longer a draft, so no one need fear they'd actually have to fight this war. No, we had a volunteer army for that. Certainly, the chickenhawks in the Bush administration, who'd avoided the Vietnam War like the plague, had no reason to worry personally about this one. And, for the first time in our history, we weren't going to raise taxes to actually pay for it, so there was no opposition for that reason, either. Heck, a free war! How could anyone pass that up?

And when Afghanistan got boring, there was Iraq. True, there was even less reason to invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein was actually the enemy of al-Qaeda, and he was certainly no threat to America. But he had all that lovely oil (remember how the war was going to "pay for itself"?) and lots of targets for our high-tech weapons. What fun!

Starting a war is wildly popular among "patriots," especially if no one has to fight it or pay for it - well, no one important. Politically, it's pure gold. George W. Bush got to prance around in a flight suit, playing "Commander-in-Chief" for all he was worth, under a "Mission Accomplished" banner, of all things (no, the mission was not accomplished, not even close). And yeah, it got him re-elected.

But now what? Bush got what he needed, and it's no longer his responsibility, is it? We've got a new president now - of a different political party, even - and the war in Afghanistan has dragged on for more than a decade. It's not popular anymore, but we can't easily get out of it, either. Yeah, that's where that lack of an exit strategy comes in.

When it comes to leaving again, there are two big issues. The first is that we can't just cut and run when things get tough, not and keep any kind of reputation as a reliable ally. We've got people depending on us. We've got young girls going to school despite having acid thrown in their faces! What would happen to them if we just give up?

Afghanistan was never our responsibility, but it is now. We invaded the country. We made it our responsibility. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, but we can't pretend that it didn't happen.

But there's another issue, the issue of politics in a democracy. Starting the war was popular, politically. But a politically popular option now simply doesn't exist. Sure, the war is unpopular. Staying is unpopular. But if we leave, and the Taliban moves back in, Barack Obama's political enemies will have a heyday. "Barack Obama lost the war!" The attack ads write themselves.

Here's my point: Doing the wrong thing was politically popular, which is one reason, at least, why George W. Bush did it. But now, we're stuck with no good options. When you step into a quagmire, it's going to get messy. There's simply no way around that. Whatever Barack Obama does, short of turning Afghanistan into a 21st Century secular democracy - which isn't going to happen - is going to be unpopular. And doing nothing is also going to be unpopular.

It's the same thing with those tax cuts. Cutting taxes is always popular, even when it's absolutely the wrong thing to do. And although it's the right thing to do to raise them back up now, that's unpopular. (Admittedly, raising taxes on the rich does poll pretty well. But it's hard to tell how that will work out in reality.)

George W. Bush got the advantage of those popular tax cuts, while leaving the disaster they created for his successor. And as the deficit climbs higher and higher, Republicans hammer at Barack Obama on it. Obama didn't do this. He didn't create the deficit. He didn't collapse the economy. He didn't start two wars for no reason, with no exit strategy, and without even paying for them.

But he's the one stuck with the situation. He's the one facing unpopular decisions, whatever he does - and particularly if he does the right thing. And its the Republicans - the people who caused this whole mess in the first place - who will gleefully take advantage of that.

You've seen how Republicans hammer away at Barack Obama's "unprecedented massive deficits." I posted about that last week. Almost entirely, they're taking advantage of problems they themselves created and which they are dragging their feet about fixing.

But it works. It worked when they created those problems, because they took advantage of what was popular then. And it works now, since the Democrats are left to clean up afterwards.

This is the big problem in a democracy. The wrong things are often politically popular, at least in the short term. And the short term is all a politician usually cares about. (Note that all too many Democrats voted for war and for those tax cuts, too. Well, every politician wants to be - needs to be - popular.)

When those popular moves are disastrous in the long-term, as they often are, that's someone else's problem. At that point, doing the right thing is often unpopular. Of course, your political opponent could do the right thing and support what's best for our country. Or,... they could leap to take political advantage of the situation.

For the cynical political machine the Republican Party has become, it's win/win. They win on both sides of this political equation. America loses. Well, that's what has historically kept this tactic in check.

But fanatics tend to think that the end justifies the means. Obviously, it's so very beneficial for America that Republicans retake the presidency, that anything they do, no matter how much it harms America in the short-term, is justified, right?

What's the solution? I don't know. We can't change human nature. We can't magically make people less selfish and less short-sighted, and it's always going to be easy to believe what you want to believe. Sure, this wouldn't work if all citizens were well-informed and active participants in the democratic process. But most people just don't pay much attention.

For their own purposes, cynics have convinced many people that all politicians are alike, that government can't do anything right, and that the whole thing is rigged, anyway. Well, keeping Americans ignorant and passive is also a political tactic. When you want the wealthy to control our country, it's best if ordinary people lose hope.

I'm sure the solution is to have an intelligent, informed, and active citizenry. But that's not what we've got. And I don't know how we get it. Do you?


Anonymous said...

"This is a democracy, after all."

No, it isn't. It's a republic.

WCG said...

Honestly, is there any reason for me to even respond to this? At best, it's pedantic.

Check a dictionary:

Democracy - A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Works for me.