Joe Biden sometimes tells a story about his father: “Don’t tell me what you value,” his father would say, “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” If this past weekend’s negotiations have told us anything, it’s that we can see clearly and without a doubt what the Republican Party values most: protecting the wealthy, costs be damned.
We entered the weekend with President Obama presenting Republicans with what, at almost any other time in modern history, would be greeted like a conservative dream deal: $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years, and the chance to restructure core pieces of the Democratic legacy, including Social Security and Medicare. We ended the weekend with Speaker John Boehner walking away from the deal, not because the cuts weren’t steep enough but because they would be achieved, in part, through tax increases on hedge fund managers, private jet owners and oil and gas companies.
This is a party, to paraphrase Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. It is a party that accepts no new taxes, no closing of loopholes, no crackdowns on overseas tax havens, and no increase in corporate tax rates even as the biggest corporations pay little or no taxes on billions of profits. It is a party that embraces cruel cuts to the social safety net, but then draws its line in the sand on behalf of hedge fund managers. What kind of people aspire to govern with the goal of harming the weakest on behalf of the strongest? To them, shared sacrifice is anathema.
In truth, we didn’t learn anything new about Republicans over the weekend. We just confirmed what we already knew: that they are, as conservative columnist David Brooks noted, no longer a “normal party,” that they are extremist and unbending in their quasi-theological adherence to tax cuts for the wealthy. Now, as before, the global economy may be their victim.
What’s worse is that, rather than being chastised, they are empowered by an establishment media obsessed with debts and deficits. When Republicans decry raising taxes on the rich, it is all too rare to hear the media respond with the real facts — with the truth. A truth that says that in the 1950s, one of every four dollars in federal tax revenues came from the corporate income tax, but by the last decade the proportion had dropped to one in 10. A truth that says that a recovery in which only 1 percent of income growth has gone to wages, while 88 percent has gone to corporate profits, isn’t really a recovery at all. A truth that says that tax rates are at their lowest since the Truman administration. A truth that says programs such as Social Security and Medicare are not in crisis. And that putting people back to work is the most effective deficit-reduction plan.
It is because of the Republican Party — and because of too much of the media’s unwillingness to tell those truths — that we have abandoned Economics 101 for snake oil.
President Obama and his team have recently taken to talking about “bigness” with regard to the debt ceiling. Little, however, has been said about applying that desire for “bigness,” for “grand bargains,” to job creation instead of deficit reduction. In the face of two months of stalled job growth, President Obama came to the podium in the Rose Garden not with a pledge to do something big but to offer political niceties. He said he knew “that people in both parties are ready to” roll up their sleeves. On what evidence can he base such a claim?
This isn’t a time to give an extremist Republican Party the benefit of the doubt. And it isn’t a time to hope, with fingers crossed, that the frail economic recovery that has sputtered since it began will somehow, suddenly, without any government action, take off. This is a time, whatever the political challenges, to invest in a fight.
Obama may want to play the role of reasonable adult, but being reasonable cannot mean acting as a hostage negotiator. It must mean being a leader of a nation that cries out for relief and reconstruction. He must push for a grand bargain on jobs, not cuts.
And where there are lines being drawn in the sand, President Obama must draw his as well. Yes, demand that the rich pay their fair share. But it is time to be bolder than that. Where lines are being drawn, we must draw ours on behalf of the jobless, who now spend, on average, 40 weeks looking for work. We must draw ours on behalf of the elderly, who cannot afford to get a smaller Social Security check next month. We must draw ours for the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost their Medicaid already, and the hundreds of thousands more that may lose it in this deal.
President Obama was elected, in part, because he challenged the smallness of our politics. But his deeds and words suggest that he has embraced that smallness. If now isn’t a time to change that, then when?