July 31, 2011

In the melodrama that is consuming Washington this hot summer, featuring the spectacle of how much Tea Party Republicans will be able to extort for agreeing not to blow up the economy, the values and priorities of most Americans were early casualties. That reality will drive — no matter what the resolution this week — new, independent citizen mobilizations challenging both Republican zealotry and Democratic cravenness.

The debt-ceiling debate has lasted long enough for most Americans to start paying attention and to realize just how divorced both parties are from basic common sense. With the economy faltering and 25 million people in need of full-time work, most Americans want Washington focused on how to create jobs and get the economy going, not on slashing spending for the rising number of poor children while sheltering tax havens for millionaires.

Equally inexplicable is the president’s apparent eagerness to negotiate with a legislative faction willing to hold the entire economy hostage — and one prepared to extort concessions in backroom deals that it could not achieve in any normal legislative process. Negotiating with fiscal terrorists only encourages them.

On National Public Radio last week, Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican deputy whip, was giddy about the potential for calamity. Asked if it was a mistake to try to cut spending by threatening the U.S. economy, Cole replied: “No, I don’t think so. Frankly, I think it’s one of the good things that’s come out of this. We’ll never have a debt-ceiling increase again without serious efforts to deal with the long-term spending.”

Whatever the terms of the eventual agreement, we know they will be remarkably cruel. As Robert Greenstein, the respected director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted last week that every plan on the table now is far worse — cutting more from programs for the poor, exacting pain on the most vulnerable in our society — than anything Jim DeMint, the most extreme right-wing senator of all, was demanding last year.

The emerging compromise plans cut around $1 trillion over 10 years from programs such as schools, clean water, mass transit, clean energy and public health with no — zero — contributions from the wealthy or corporations through increased taxes or the closing of loopholes. They set up a congressional super-committee armed with expedited voting powers and with the explicit mandate to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

It is astonishing how out of touch these plans are with what people seek in these tough times. The vast majority of Americans want Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid protected, not cut. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that nearly three-fourths of Americans oppose cuts in Medicare. Majorities reject raising the eligibility age for Medicare or cutting the Social Security inflation rate, two reforms President Obama has apparently embraced. For Americans, the most popular reforms to deal with the deficit are increased taxes on those making more than $250,000 (72 percent), hedge fund operators, and oil and gas companies.

And Americans now better understand just whom Republicans represent. When asked to choose who cares more about defending the economic interests of different groups, Americans thought Republicans cared more than Obama about Wall Street financial institutions (59 percent to 26 percent) and large business corporations (67-24), while picking Obama as caring more about “you and your family” (47-37), small businesses (48-39) and middle-class Americans (53-35).

But after signing off on a skewed deal that targets Social Security and protects corporate tax havens, Democrats and the president will have a harder time convincing working Americans that they are on their side.That discontent is already seeping into Obama’s base. The same Post-ABC News poll showed the president’s poll numbers falling, even among liberals and African Americans — his most loyal backers. Only 31 percent of liberal Democrats expressed strong support for Obama’s record on jobs, a severe drop from 53 percent last year.

With the economy weakening, wages stagnant and families struggling, this bipartisan agreement will only stoke public anger. Certainly, the Gang of 12 on the congressional rump committee will hear the rage. Americans will not allow Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to be cut without a fierce battle.

Already, various groups have come together to forge an American Dream Movement dedicated to challenging the corporate corruption of our politics, demanding that those who’ve done well do right by their country and fighting for the broad middle class. In recent weeks they’ve organized hundreds of demonstrations at congressional offices nationwide.

In the August recess, the heat legislators encounter back home won’t come from the weather alone. The Tea Party captured the populist anger in 2010, representing a small fraction of the population. In 2012, legislators in both parties may just encounter a populist uprising that represents an American majority.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.