If I were the paranoid type, I’d have long ago begun to wonder whether the Democratic leaders in this country had hatched a secret plot to kill me and make it look like an accident. How? By causing me to bang my head into my desk upon reading about their boneheaded political manueverings so often that I cause a massive subdural hematoma, rapidly filling my brain with blood and killing me within 48 hours.
Good thing I’m not the paranoid type, because they’re at it again:
A senior Senate Democratic aide told TPM today there won’t be a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts in the upper chamber before the November election…It’s also a signal that the House won’t take action — though nothing has been decided for certain, since leaders there have said all along they are waiting for the Senate.
Here’s the reason that’s head-poundingly stupid political strategy, in a nutshell: the 2001 Bush tax cuts expire this year, if not re-authorized. It is commonly believed (and evidence demonstrates) that those “Bush tax cuts” (along with the 2003 round), combined with the launching of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Medicare Part D bill “on credit” (that is: with no method of paying for them specified), were the largest proximate causes of the skyrocketing deficit and debt under George W. Bush. This isn’t even particularly controversial. If you put something on a credit card, your debt-load increases and you wind up having to pay much more for whatever you put on your credit card because of interest payments, than you would had you figured out a way to pay for it out of your regular budget.
Of course, now that a Democrat is once again President, and Democrats control both houses of Congress, Republicans and their fellow travelers in the tea party have spent recent months dragging out their old playbook about Democrats. You know it by heart, because the GOP has been very effective over the last 40 years at defining and demonizing their opposition. The word “liberal” – and many other words formerly associated with the Democratic party – has been rendered radioactive by the coordinated, coherent and sustained rhetorical attack of right-wing think tanks and (in recent years) media such as FAUX “News” and the myriad of conservative magazines, newspapers and of course — talk radio. That conservative playbook/dictionary defines Democrats as “tax-and-spend.” The very phrase “tax-and-spend” has become a household phrase in kitchen-table political dialogue. Even the least politically aware or involved among us know it and/or will use it in certain situations (unless they know better). “Tax and spend liberals/Democrats” – it’s a fixture of American political discourse.
The trouble for the GOP these days, in returning so lustily to the playbooks of yesteryear which they employed to such great effect, is that George W. Bush treated the deficit approximately the same way David Vitter treats hookers. The GOP knows – at least the smart ones who run the political arm know – that there’s a hole in their story about painting Democrats as “tax-and-spend liberals” and themselves as “fiscally responsible” that’s big enough to drive a Winnebago through. Namely: the modern GOP/tea party cannot be considered serious about reducing the deficit if they intend to extend indefinitely the Bush tax cuts — which is indeed their stated goal. The cost in lost revenue of extending the Bush tax cuts for ALL Americans over the next decade is estimated at $3.7 TRILLION. Democrats, in keeping with Obama’s ’08 campaign pledge to maintain or lower taxes of everyone making $250,000 or less, ran the numbers to see what allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for just those Americans who make more than $250K. Turns out, about 2% of Americans make more than $250K/yr, and that allowing their Bush tax cuts to expire would save $700 billion over the next ten years.
Ouch. That means that we could continue the tax cuts for the 98% of Americans who make under $250K/yr – and even on the first $250K of income of those who make more than that, and shave $700bn off the deficit, just by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule income above $250K/yr for the 2% of Americans who make that much.
In political organizing, that’s what’s called a slam-dunk winner of an issue. Health care reform? EFCA? Cap-and-trade? Those are complicated, difficult issues, and contentious votes. Yet the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have addressed all of them to varying degrees (and with varying degrees of success). And, make no mistake, it’s cost them political capital to do so. The lunatic wing of the GOP – which is most of it, these days – has had a field day calling Obama everything from Mao to Hitler over his support for some of these contentious issues. And one need only glance at Obama’s approval rating chart over time to see the deleterious effect pursuing these issues has had for him. Generic congressional Democrats’ graphs look similar. So one would think that discovering (or being handed, on a silver platter) an issue where they get to give goodies to 98% of all Americans, while saving $700bn over ten years off the deficit simply by allowing tax rates on the top 2% of earners to return to pre-Bush levels – like they’re already set to do automatically – would strike Democrats looking worriedly toward a midterm election as a no-brainer, almost manna from heaven.
One would think.
Unfortunately, as I’ve already linked to above, one would be wrong to think that. Remember that Winnebago-sized hole I mentioned earlier in the Republican playbook of painting Democrats as “tax and spenders” and themselves as “fiscally responsible and worried about the deficit?” That hole only exists if someone actually bothers to drive that Winnebago. And, with yesterday’s revelation that they won’t bring up a vote on the Bush tax cuts before the election, Democrats in congress are saying, essentially, “we’re not gonna drive that Winnebago.” And you wonder why my head hurts.
Here’s what could have been: House and Senate both draft up simple legislation, extending the Bush tax cuts on all income under $250,000, introducing it simultaneously in both chambers of congress. Republicans in both chambers, who really, REALLY want to funnel money to their rich buddies who give them campaign contributions, would then – six weeks before a crucial midterm election – have to choose between voting for the bill, thus stiffing and angering their rich buddies, and voting against the bill, handing Democrats the chance to spend the last six weeks before the election showing voters that although the GOP claims to be the party of fiscal discipline, in reality they’re such a wholly-owned subsidiary of America’s wealthiest interests that they’re willing to vote to kill needed tax relief for 98% of regular, non-rich Americans if they can’t add $700bn to the nation’s deficit in a horrible economic period. Folks, the thirty-second ads almost write themselves. As political pitches go, it just doesn’t GET any better than that.
What’s more, the beauty of holding a vote on such legislation is that it works politically whether the bill actually passes or not! Why? Because if it passes, 98% of Americans get tax relief but the GOP is on record as having opposed it…and if the bill loses, it’s almost an even better outcome, politically, because then the Democratic message goes from “Republicans opposed this” to “Republicans actually KILLED tax relief for YOU and your neighbors because they couldn’t get tax relief for the very richest Americans who don’t need it.” For Democrats, who’ve been facing sagging numbers, due in many cases (at least in part) to their votes on much more controversial legislation like health care reform, it would be like a silver bullet to be able to have the last legislative action these Democrats took before returning to their states and districts to campaign this fall be passing tax relief extensions for 98% of Americans AND cutting $700bn off the country’s deficit over the next ten years while also proving that their various Republican opponents are a) beholden to the wealthy and b) not at all serious when they speak of deficit reduction.
So why aren’t the Democrats jumping at this chance? Why are they throwing what appears to be a slam-dunk winner of an issue down the drain at the very time they would appear to need such an issue most? Because they’re afraid of their own shadows, and even more afraid of the GOP. Literally. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that; the bit about shadows is obviously metaphorical, but the part about being afraid to confront the GOP messaging machine isn’t overstated at all, nor is it inaccurate. Obviously, Democrats don’t actually say “we’re too scared,” when asked why they’re not bringing up this issue for a vote before election day — so what reasons DO they give?
Well, as usual, Democrats are trying to be too-clever by half, for one thing. One of the more-interesting spins on the decision comes – I’m told, though I have no proof this is true – directly from White House spin-meister David Axelrod. It goes like this: the Bush tax cut issue is
…already a winning message without a vote since Obama and Democrats have framed the debate as the Republicans being for the rich and Democrats wanting to help the middle class.
A literate fifth grader would be able to see that such a response begs the question: why not hold the vote, then? And the answer to that question is also one of the two main answers – the real answers – to why the vote isn’t being held. Those two reasons are: they’re scared they’d lose the vote, due to unanimous GOP opposition and the defection of a small but significant number of Blue Dog Democrats, handing the leadership a defeat right before the election, coupled with the other reason: they’re afraid, win or lose, of the 30-second ads the GOP and affiliated groups will run against them in their home districts on the issue. They’re worried that they’ll be bombarded with ads saying they’re engaging in redistribution of wealth and socialistic class warfare by denying tax relief to the most productive (meaning: highest earning) Americans, etc.
What any politically-aware person could tell you without even thinking about it is that the GOP will already call their opponents every awful insinuative, dog-whistle name in the book. This is the party that ran pictures of Max Cleland, a triple-amputee from the Vietnam war, alongside pictures of Osama Bin Laden to imply Cleland was soft on homeland security/defense. The party that elevated a stateside national air guardsman (Bush) with a spotty attendance record who may very well have been AWOL for much of his service to the status of a defense hero while calling a bronze-star combat veteran (John Kerry) an anti-military coward. They’re not gonna keep the gloves on because you didn’t hold a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts, fellas. They never were. And you seem to be the only people in America who’re paying attention that don’t realize it. The GOP will always – repeat, ALWAYS – try to paint Democrats as the party of “acid, amnesty and abortion” – and anything else they think they can reasonably get away with. And the ONLY remedy to this, the only effective counter, is to a) refute every single one of their lies, immediately, forcefully and as many times as necessary to drive a stake through the heart of those lies, b) avoid letting them set the terms of the debate by keeping you on the defensive, and c) hit back, hard, with equally damning rhetoric which has the distinction of actually being true.
Holding a vote on the Bush tax cuts right now would have had the advantage of fulfilling all three of those imperatives of countering the GOP onslaught. If you don’t define yourself AND your opponent, they will define themselves AND you — and that has proved deadly for Democrats, over and over and over again. It killed John Kerry’s campaign. It’s killed the campaigns of countless congressional and gubernatorial Democrats in recent years. And it will go right on, merrily killing the campaigns (and hopes) of Democrats as far as the eye can see into the future, unless and until Democrats wake up and realize that they have been playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules against an opponent who believes in winner take all, the ends justify the means, take no prisoners and – at the risk of putting too fine a point on it – vae victis. It’s that simple. Democrats already are somewhat hamstrung in their campaigning because they have at least somewhat of a fealty to the actual facts. Republicans simply say whatever a) works and b) advances their electoral prospects and their ideology/private interests. Republicans will use the truth if they can…but they’ve no compunction about lying right through their teeth, party-wide, if the truth of a particular issue doesn’t favor them. Democrats have had to fight back without resorting to blatantly false campaigning of that sort, for the most part. So it beggars understanding why Democrats, who’re already saddled with the tactical disadvantage of not being completely ethics-free when it comes to simply lying to achieve their goals, would turn around and willingly saddle themselves with further restrictions, such as never taking risks because they fear the 30-second ads that might follow.
In the end, of course, Democrats succeed only in demoralizing their own base, who see the Democrats’ excessive timidity and recognize it as not only a strategic but an endemic personal weakness. The result is that opportunities which were ripe for the plucking go unrealized AND the Democrats lose opportunities to make the bold, forthright case to not just their own supporters but ALL voters and citizens that they are the ones with the best answers to various challenges the country faces. It is this, rather than what the current White House apparently seems to believe about progressives being disenchanted because they think Democrats aren’t “extremely liberal enough,” which saps Democratic momentum at key moments. In 2006 and 2008, the memory – and ongoing reality – of the malfeasance and abject incompetence of GOP leadership was fresh enough in the minds of the electorate that Democrats were able, in back-to-back elections, to overcome this problem. People were DESPERATE for change, and – right on schedule – along came a savvy, mixed-race politician who promised them exactly that. And the electorate responded by handing the Democrats an unusually large majority in both houses of Congress and also the White House, spread out over two successive elections. But even allowing for the fact that pendulums are always swinging, the reason it’s swung back so far this cycle that many if not most pundits are predicting a GOP takeover of the house and a near-miss at the Senate is because the Democrats have returned to their traditional (since Reagan) stance of governing pretty well, but lacking courage, and allowing the Mighty Wurlitzer of GOP disinformation and bullshit to define every issue on the table, and even define the Democrats themselves. That’s why I titled this post “Cave-men”: because that’s, unfortunately, what the Democrats seem best at these days: caving in to pressure – or even the imagined threat of pressure – from the opposition, no matter how badly tarnished the reputation of the opposition is, nor how lunatic and unqualified/incompetent the opposition’s candidates are.
I’ll tell you this, though. There are a few races to watch this election cycle. The first one is Alan Grayson in Florida. Grayson has been the number one target of the RNC since his election, because he’s made it a point to unapologetically and from a progressive standpoint stick his thumb into the eye of Republican hypocrisy, again and again and again. Remember Grayson’s famous speech (with charts!) on the floor of the house, where he said the GOP’s health plan amounted to: “don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly?” Grayson caught some flak for that speech, not just from panty-bewadded Republicans, who predictably pretended to be outraged at Grayson’s remarks (despite many of their own legislators having compared “Obamacare” to a death sentence for America’s seniors), but from many of the uncritical mainstream media and even from a few fellow chickenshit Democrats, who all tut-tutted that he’d broken with usual decorum and been “too coarse” or similar nonsense. Grayson’s never apologized, and in fact, he’s repeated his claims, and gone on to make other, equally inflammatory (but generally accurate, if provocatively stated) claims about the GOP. If Grayson wins in his Orlando district this fall, it will be proof that I am not simply whistling Dixie when I say that the only way to deal with the current thugs who control the GOP and the tea party is to hit them back, hard.
Another such race is that of Anne Kuster in New Hampshire. Kuster was a progressive choice in a hotly-contested primary against a stereotypical Lieberman-esque Blue Dog, Elizabeth Swett. Swett had the backing of the party machinery and the name recognition, but in the end, the vastly-outspent Kuster prevailed with a genuinely progressive message in her district. She now faces (obviously) a Republican challenger in the general election where everyone can vote. He is tea-party favorite Charlie Bass. If Kuster can win with an unapologetically progressive agenda, it will further cement my point. The last race to watch is the one for Wisconsin Senator. Russ Feingold is a long-time incumbent, and universally acknowledged to be the Senate’s most progressive member, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, who is actually registered not as a Democrat but as a socialist (technically, independent). Feingold’s running in another tight race against a tea party darling, a man named Ron Johnson, who, until earlier this year, literally had no public profile at all, and no prior experience in politics. None. His campaign is literally a 100% confection of propaganda and tea party hopes. It’s also rife with internal contradiction, hypocrisy and potential ethics issues. If a progressive Senator in good standing with the people of his state can be upset, even in a year which the media has already dubbed one of “overwhelming anti-incumbent sentiment,” by an empty suit like Johnson, it will weaken my point. If Feingold holds on, again, it will underscore the message that it isn’t harmful to stand firm, to take “risky” votes or positions if they are progressive values you truly believe in.
Conversely, there are also many so-called Blue Dogs up for election this year as well. Many of them come from districts where there’s a pretty even balance of red and blue…which is literally why Rahm Emanuel, during his time at the DCCC, recruited them to run: because they were conservative enough that he figured they could potentially win against the GOP. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. But the question was never answered: how would an actual Democrat – someone who won’t vote with the opposition on core Democratic issues – have fared in that election? We can never know the answer to those questions, obviously. But what we will know much more clearly after November is whether the Cave-men whose thinking currently leads the Democrats in both houses of Congress as well as the White House, apparently, had the correct approach, or whether – as the liberal base has been saying, nay, screaming, with increasing volume and desperation – Democrats have to provide a staunch alternative to the GOP juggernaut/steamroller in order to win the people’s trust and support – and votes. I guess we’ll know in about six weeks. In the interim, I only wish we’d stop blowing opportunities to trumpet our own accomplishments and highlight the stark differences between pretty much everyone and the GOP in the most effective way possible: by showing America that we’re not afraid to put our money where our mouths are.