The Washington Post

The Democrats’ misplaced frustrations

The news today is filled with quotes from Congressional Democrats who are angry with President Obama for failing to show leadership in the budget and spending wars. Politico has a story along these lines today, and so does Roll Call:

President Barack Obama’s laissez-faire approach to the ongoing spending debate is winning him few friends on Capitol Hill.

Republican and Democratic Members alike are becoming increasingly critical of the president and are demanding the White House immediately step up its role in the standoff over funding the government. And Democrats fear that if Obama doesn’t engage more directly — and soon — they will lose the war of words to the Republicans on the critical issue of federal spending.

I appreciate this frustration, but it seems misplaced. The issue isn’t that Obama is failing to use his bully pulpit adequately to drive the Dem message. Rather, the problem is that there is no Dem message.

Democrats have failed to unite behind a coherent critique of the GOP’s fiscal policies, and have failed to articulate a clear alternative. When Senator Jeff Merkley recently offered a consistent and cogent critique of the GOP’s approach, he sounded like a rather lonely fellow. By acquiescing in advance to deep but temporary GOP cuts, and by lending rhetorical support to the notion that “government must tighten its belt” immediately, Dems only made it harder on themselves. They are now in the awkward position of arguing that the GOP’s proposal of $61 billion in budget cuts will cost 700,000 jobs, while simultaneously arguing that cutting somewhat less is good policy.

Dems seem to be signaling that they might be able to accept a deal on a package of $30 billion to $40 billion in cuts. But by the lights of the Dems’ own critique of the GOP’s proposals, wouldn’t these cuts also cost too many jobs? The point is not that Dems shouldn’t criticize the GOP’s cuts or that they wouldn’t cost jobs, but rather that their overall arguments are muddled and self-contradictory. No wonder the new Pew poll shows a sharp rise in the number of Americans who see little difference between the parties on fiscal issues.

Maybe it’s fair to blame Obama’s lack of leadership for the Dems’ failure to articulate a coherent alternative vision to the GOP’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame. But at what point do Congressional Dems take some responsibility for their own internal bickering and their own perpetual willingness to lend rhetorical support to the GOP’s fiscal worldview?

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


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