An imbalanced debate won't lead to a balanced solution

at 03:16 PM ET, 06/28/2011

Last night on the Ed Show, guest-anchor Thomas Roberts asked me whether Bernie Sanders's populism was a viable alternative in the debt-ceiling debate. My response, and it's an odd one to have about a self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont, was "what populism?"

I'm not questioning Sanders's ideological bona fides here. The fact that he's a pragmatist in legislative debates doesn't diminish from the populism that animates his politics. But "shared sacrifice" — which is what Sanders is calling for — isn't populism. A plan consisting of 50 percent tax increases, which would mean a tax cut against a world in which the Bush tax cuts expired, isn't radical. That's about what President George H.W. Bush agreed to in the early ’90s, actually.

Steve Benen puts it well. "We have a Democratic Senate and a Republican House," he writes, "but the notion of an equitable, 50-50 split is thought of as fanciful nonsense backed only by liberal extremists. When Republicans demand a 100-0 split in their favor, meanwhile, and failure to do so will mean they cause a recession on purpose, this is somehow just routine and predictable.”

To make that slightly more specific, the Republican position on the debt-ceiling deal is that there should be deep spending cuts in domestic discretionary programs, tremendous cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, and no tax increases or significant defense cuts. If Democrats don't agree, then the next best alternative is for the minority party to induce a financial crisis. The Democratic position is that there should be deep spending cuts in domestic discretionary programs, some cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, some defense cuts, and tax increases that are about a fifth the size of the spending cuts. If the Republicans don't agree, there should be further negotiations.

The debate, in other words, has shifted so far to the right that though Sanders's speech was decidedly populist, he isn't seriously proposing a solution that the left would recognize. As a policy matter, that makes sense. We're looking at a big budget gap, and concentrating cuts or taxes on any one group is going to lead to bad policy. But this is one of the key asymmetries in politics right now: Socialists from Vermont feel the need to put forward pragmatic, responsible plans, while the leadership of the Republican Party doesn't.

 
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