The Party Line – July 1, 2011: Dick Move

I feel like adapting a joke from Thom Lehrer, who once remarked that a debate over the MLF (look it up) happened during the baseball season, so readers of the Chronicle might not have heard about it. The incident I want to talk about happened during MSNBC’s Morning Joe, so if you have no stomach for that show (or morning television in general)—like me—or if you only watched MSNBC the rest of the day, you might have missed it. . . but plenty of others are talking about it: MSNBC’s “senior political analyst” Mark Halperin was suspended indefinitely on Thursday after calling President Obama “Kind of a dick” on Morning Joe. (You want a laugh—another laugh? Check out how the Washington Post wrote this up: “kind of a [vulgarism for male organ].”)

If you want, take a look at an unedited version of the exchange, it is really pathetic for about a dozen reasons, but let me focus on what might be (as it usually is) the most pathetic part, which is the sizzle becomes the story, and not the steak—the real meaty part being what is actually going on in Washington.

Mark Halperin (whose father, Morton, yes, did defend US bombing during the Vietnam War, but later went on to champion civil liberties and open government, and has always been articulate and exhibited a real gravitas—so who knows what happened with his son?) said the president was all genital-like because Obama, in his Wednesday presser, dared to get the slightest bit snarky about corporate jet-users and their GOP guardians. . . and that, in my considered opinion, was wrong. It was wrong because getting annoyed (or, more likely, “acting” annoyed) with the greedy and their handmaidens is the very least we should demand in this ravaged economy, and it was wrong because, even if that behavior was somehow beyond the pale, it wouldn’t make Obama a dick, and certainly wouldn’t make it intelligent commentary to have some lightweight “analyst” call him one.

One of the first rules of civil debate (and child-rearing—perhaps that is where Mort went wrong) is that you criticize the action, and not the actor. Ad hominem attacks do nothing to advance an argument, and they are certainly not analysis.

The president is not a dick—but, that said, the president did make a dick move. No, not the one that got Halperin to put in for a few extra weeks of summer vacation—that, as I said, was sub-minimal—the dick move was cutting the legs out from under congressional Democrats in an effort to prove his worth to whomever it is Obama looks to for approval (still trying to sort that one out), and improve his standing for his 2012 run.

Obama’s dick move actually comes in two thrusts (did I just write that?): First, the White House undermined the negotiating posture of Democratic members of Congress by a) continuing to move to the right on budget cuts in an effort to forge something the president can call a “compromise,” and b) offering up some sort of “trade” of cuts to what, for lack of a better word, are called “entitlements” in exchange for what (and not for lack of a better word but for lack of a spine) are called “revenue enhancements.” And, second, Obama kneecapped congressional Dems’ election strategy by setting in motion a process that will likely tie Democrats to a vote that will inoculate Republicans from the charge that only the GOP wants to cut Medicare.

Democratic leadership in Congress wants to send a clear message that they are the protectors of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—and increasingly, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) indicated this week, Democrats also want voters to know that Republicans are looking to benefit politically from an economic crisis and so, are not negotiating in good faith. The White House muddied that message with the specifics outlined above, and with the general posture that it is in some sort of negotiation with GOP leaders.

Will anybody be talking about any of that heading into the holiday weekend? (Present company excluded, of course.) Doubtful. But will tongues be wagging about Lil’ Mark and, perhaps, how his “analysis” was stifled by the “librul media?” Yeah, that feels like it has legs. . . maybe three of them.

The Party Line – June 10, 2011: Hope Floats

The Obama administration has a problem. As much Republican good will or corporate campaign cash as they expect to gain from their reinforcing of the deficit hysteria meme (which, let’s face it, will not be very much at all), even the most cynical of the president’s economic team realizes that all this budget cutting isn’t going to do squat for the current economy. Without something directly stimulative, the recovery likely stalls. Without some sort of jobs program, the unemployment picture continues to look grim. There is no “car” to worry about putting in reverse—it has been spinning its wheels for some time now, and, as most Americans see it, it never did drive out of that ditch.

Yes, with 2012 shaping up to be another “it’s the economy, stupid” election year, O & Co. has a problem—but with the same deficit hawks and scorched-earth partisans controlling Congress, what is a president obsessed with bipartisan-like process to do?

A natural place to look would be the deal the White House cut last December with House Republicans—and indeed, Obama went to that well earlier this week. During an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president floated the idea of extending a central part of that deal, the two-percent payroll tax cut for employees, for another year. Then, never failing to miss an opportunity to negotiate with itself, the White House later posited an employer-side payroll tax break (instead of the employee-side cut? in addition to? hard to say, but it is fairly easy to guess which would be favored by the GOP) as an incentive to business for some sort of job creation.

Payroll taxes, however, are not some sort of rainy-day fund the government puts aside when it can, there to use if it needs a new washing machine. . . or the economy is in a ditch. These payroll taxes—the ones Obama is offering to cut—go to fund Social Security and disability. The 2010 deal cost roughly $112 billion, and it figures extending the cut another year will cost the same. If the employer-side cut is comparable, and it is paired with an extension of the employee-side holiday, Social Security could be out close to $400 billion by the end of next year.

The Obama administration has assured us that the Social Security shortfall will be made up from the general revenue, but if the White House does not think it has the political capital to push through a more straightforward (and almost certainly more effective) money-for-jobs stimulus plan, why are we to grant that they can engineer a repayment of the Social Security fund? And even if that transfer were politically possible, what $400 billion cut in the federal budget will have to be made to appease the deficit peacocks?

All of this—or any of this—puts additional pressure on Social Security, or, more accurately, lends ammunition to those already taking pot shots at the long-term viability of the program. If there are already “serious” people trying to shock-doctrine in changes to the retirement plan, how much more shocking could they make things seem after taking a two-, three-, or four-hundred billion-dollar bite out of its reserves?

None of these cold calculations likely come as a big surprise to the White House. In fact, this is all possibly part of the political calculation—that one of the reasons Hill Republicans might go along with an Obama-proffered plan of any sort is the resulting dent it puts in the Social Security trust fund.

That might seem like a successful trade to administration insiders, buying themselves some small bit of help for an economy on the skids and sure to suffer from any “deficit reduction,” but it comes at a heck of a price. Not only does the economic upside of this bargain look relatively small, the political downside is potentially huge. As both the recent Medicare scare and the 2005 Social Security privatization push have taught us, American voters hate it when you threaten their “entitlements.” If Republicans can muddy the waters, or actually drag the White House into the mud with them, on Social Security “reform” (read: benefit cuts), they will have taken away one of the Democrats’ most effective salvos for the coming campaign.

And that will come in addition to a litany of “wins” for the corporatists, deficit hawks, party hacks, and TEA-totaling ideologues—more tax breaks, less federal spending, a dead-weight economy, and a damaged social safety net. To counter all of that, the Obama administration offers its float of payroll tax cuts and the hope that this and a little economic luck will change things for the better. . . or at least keep enough voters from noticing how they have gotten worse.

(A version of this post appears today at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – June 3, 2011: A Tale of Two Countries

It isn’t the best of times; how can we keep it from being the worst of times?

In one country, a government that campaigned on a move to green energy reacts to the nuclear crisis in Japan by reaffirming its commitment to nuclear power. In another country, a government that, only nine months ago, endorsed a plan to expand its reliance on nuclear power reacts to the Fukushima disaster by vowing to shut down all domestic nuclear reactors by 2022, and invest in conservation and alternative energy.

The latter of the two examples is, at present, actually the one more dependent on nuclear power for its domestic electricity production, so what can explain its more populist response to current events?

The first country is, of course, the USA, where the federal government is the product of a “first past the post,” two-party electoral system. The second country is Germany, which chooses its national government by a multi-party, mixed member proportional representation system.

In Germany, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is reacting as much—or more—to domestic political pressure as it is to the disaster in Japan. . . and that is not at all a bad thing. Because, in Germany, not only is the government showing a reasonable reaction to a global catastrophe, not only is it changing policy to more accurately reflect the desires of the German people, the government has made a move that looks like it will boost the German economy.

The value of German alternative energy companies instantly shot up after Chancellor Merkel moved early in the week to shift her country away from nuclear power and toward renewable resources. Whereas, in the US, once-promised government investment in a green energy revolution has fallen victim to Beltway deficit hysteria.

This contrast threatens to leave he United States off the leading edge of a technological revolution for the second time this century.

Because of the anti-science policies and hot-button politics of the George W. Bush administration, the US has, to a large extent, missed out on the economic benefits of the genetic engineering revolution. Other countries have made themselves much more hospitable to the research and investment necessary to capitalize on those breakthroughs. And now, the pro-nuclear, pro-coal, Big-Oil-coddling posture of the current Congress and the Obama administration—combined with the cuts to alternative energy programs—threaten to again leave America behind.

A green energy revolution could provide more than “green shoots,” it could be an economic engine equal to, or even greater than, the information revolution that propelled growth in the 1990s. At a time when the US is mired in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, this is an opportunity it cannot afford to miss. And yet, without an effective group or mechanism available to pressure the people in power, a miss is looking more and more likely.

As it now stands, Germany has a chance to capitalize on a disaster, while the United States looks likely to lose another decade. For Germany, a shot at wisdom. For the US, continued foolishness.