February 12, 2013

Joe Scarborough’s ongoing feuds with liberals provide a useful peek into two related phenomena: Beltway deficit mania, and the inability of many in the D.C. elite to come to grips with the fundamental imbalance that persists between the two parties.

We’ve already talked about Scarborough’s battle with Paul Krugman. Now Scarborough is fighting with Jonathan Chait. On Morning Joe today, Scarborough cited Chait to reiterate that liberals have their heads in the sand on the deficit. Chait responded that Scarborough is falsely implying that only a handful of marginal cranks believe the deficit is not threatening immediate and sustained catastrophe.

What caught my eye about the Scarborough segment Chait posted, though, is that Scarborough seemed to be broadly agreeing with the Democratic position, if not the liberal one, on how to solve the country’s fiscal problems, without saying so. Scarborough’s a Republican who holds the basic posture that he represents a middle ground between the two parties. But at one point in that segment, he said that if Obama’s speech calls for a mix of loophole closings and entitlement cuts sparing beneficiaries, it would be “balanced.” That’s roughly the Dem position. So I emailed Scarborough to ask whether he does support such a mix. He replied:

Correct. In this order (and this is important since I am so often misquoted on this subject by the left and right):

1. Middle Class Entitlement reform. Adjustments on age and benefits starting a decade out so not to unfairly impact beneficiaries born before 1960. Medicare reform for providers would need to start earlier than reforms for beneficiaries.

Social Security is obviously far less of a fiscal challenge than Medicare. Cuts in Medicaid are a last resort. Health care for disadvantaged Americans is a disgrace already. If states can do it more efficiently, let’s discuss options. But lowering standards of care for the poor is no option.

2. Defense spending cuts NOW. And a focused foreign policy that follows Colin Powell and Dr. Brzezinski instead of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

3. Tax Reform. I support Warren Buffett’s minimum 30% tax rate for millionaires and billionaires. 15% tax rates for billionaires seem as unfair to me as tax hikes for small business owners who now face over 50% tax rates from all levels of government in urban areas like NYC, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. Also focus on carried interest.

And as I say every day, domestic discretionary spending cuts should be narrowly focused while investments in education, infrastructure and R&D are badly needed.

With the exception of the Medicare eligibility age, that’s close to the Obama/Dem position: Entitlement cuts, defense cuts, the Buffett rule, closing the carried interest loophole, and more investment in education, infrastructure, and research and development. I followed up, asking if his views are indeed more in line with Dems than with Republicans. He replied:

Yes except I don’t see the Democrats focusing seriously on Entitlements or cuts. The president is even scared to cut defense. We are now seeing an evolution in their position suggesting that Medicare will be fine and spending is not a problem. Still, if they act responsibly. I will be the first to cheer. I don’t expect to be cheering House Republicans anytime soon.

From Scarborough’s point of view, Dems have yet to prove they are serious about entitlements or spending. They agreed to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts in 2011; Obama proposed hundreds of billions in Medicare cuts during the fiscal cliff talks; and “Chained CPI” remains on the table, but put that aside for now. The key point here is that Scarborough is far closer to the Democratic position, as it has been repeatedly articulated, than he is to the Republican one. Now, it’s true that this isn’t quite the liberal position, which is that we should prioritize jobs as a means of reducing the deficit, but even Scarborough wants more government stimulus spending. Scarborough’s position is significantly closer to Chait’s position than it is to that of many conservative writers.

The broader point is that there really is something approaching a consensus on what to do about our short term fiscal problems. For all the suggestions that the two parties are far from reaching that elusive compromise position that lies in the ideological center, the truth is that Democrats already inhabit the ideological middle ground in this debate — as Scarborough himself defines it. You can argue over whether Dems will support large enough entitlement cuts, but the broad strokes are that Dems are far more in sync with this general consensus position than House Republicans are. The explicit, public position held by Republicans continues to be that we must not avert the sequester with any sort of compromise that includes any GOP concessions in the way of new revenues. By contrast, the Dem position is roughly in line with the mix of concessions by both sides that Scarborough and many other members of the D.C. elite themselves keep insisting is required. What’s mystifying is why they’re often so reluctant to admit this.

********************************************************

UPDATE: Post edited slightly for accuracy.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.