February 15, 2013
Tom Harkin
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 2009. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

I don’t know what has gotten into the Democrats’ coffee, but they finally appear to be allowing a clear, simple dividing line to emerge between Republicans and Democrats on a big issue. At least for the time being, the plain question of whether government is spending too much or too little is being asked and answered in a refreshingly clear way.

Washington hates binary questions with yes or no answers. Both sides of the aisle usually want to have it both ways. Both parties develop talking points and choose words that could mean anything. But now four serious leaders of the Democratic Party have gone on the record as saying they don’t think Washington has a spending problem. Our friends at The Fix have done the first analysis I’ve seen of this emerging debate. This Insider applauds when politicians say what they really think and then articulate a serious defense of their position.

President Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and the uninhibited, retiring Democratic senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, have all said in recent weeks that Washington does not have a spending problem. Period.

When Obama told Speaker John Boehner that we don’t have a spending problem, I chuckled but thought, so what — the president can deny the obvious and stake out a clear position, but no one ever holds him to account. The mainstream media give the president both sides of almost every issue anyway.

When Pelosi said it, I thought, good for her, but she mostly lives in a liberal bubble and no one will notice what she says.

Then Hoyer, who is more deliberate, measured and precise in his language, came out, and I thought, this is a remarkable fit of candor that could bring the contrast of the two parties’ positions into focus. Now Harkin has put an exclamation point at the end of the Democratic position.

Every member of Congress and every candidate must now answer the simple question: Do you believe we have a spending problem or not?

Harkin particularly expressed the view that Republicans believe is the true — although mostly hidden — Democratic position: “We have a misallocation of capital, a misallocation of wealth.” Meaning, Washington needs to be in the business of reallocating capital and wealth. Good for him. I’m eager for a Democrat to take the next step and say how much wealth is too much, and how much wealth, per person, needs to be guaranteed by the government.

Let’s have this debate. What better question could our politics try to answer?

The vivid contrast won’t last long, since too many Democrats will find it too difficult to defend anything resembling the spending status quo. They will develop weaselly messaging and a foggy vocabulary about “smarter government spending” or somehow hide behind their favorite dodge du jour, “a balanced approach” to spending. Or whatever. And of course they will rely heavily on their favorite ploy for truth-avoidance: labeling every nickel thrown out the window in Washington as an “investment” — usually, an investment in children, seniors, education, disease prevention, America’s very survival, puppies and kittens or some other sympathetic cause.

Anyway, while it lasts, it is a good debate to have. I hope the Democrats keep it up.