Budget Strategery and Real World Effects

The Washington Post is reporting today that – as many progressives feared – President Obama will be endorsing the general (and possibly specific) recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Fiscal Commission, long since dubbed the “Catfood Commission” in his budget talk tomorrow evening:

Obama will not blaze a fresh path when he delivers a much-anticipated speech Wednesday afternoon at George Washington University. Instead, he is expected to offer support for the commission’s work and a related effort underway in the Senate to develop a strategy for curbing borrowing. Obama will frame the approach as a responsible alternative to the 2012 plan unveiled last week by House Republicans, according to people briefed by the White House.

For reasons already laid out extensively elsewhere (see here, here, and here) the Catfood Commission plan, while certainly not as draconian nor as awful in its specifics as the abomination put forth by Paul Ryan, is the wrong prescription for America at this time in a fragile recovery, especially with huge problems which bear on it (like serious banking regulation and reform) left unaddressed. Worse than any of the specific recommendations contained in the Catfood Commission’s recommendations, though, this development appears to represent yet another policy debate in which the Democrats – and especially Mr. Obama – appear to have gotten rolled politically by a better-prepared, more battle-savvy opposition.

During the health care debate, advocates of a single-payer system were excluded from participation in Senator Ted Kennedy’s closed-door meetings on the issue, as well as from the much more influential Baucus committee hearings later in 2009. President Obama would have excluded single-payer advocates from the room during key sessions when the scope of the debate were hammered out at his March 5, 2009 health care summit, until a flood of calls, letters and a threatened live protest caused last-minute invitations to be issued to Rep. John Conyers and the head of Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), Dr. Oliver Fein.

Whether you or I or the President personally support single-payer or even a public option is less important to the politics of that time than the fact that marginalizing the advocates of a single-payer system served to materially shift the Overton Window rightward. Had Obama and congressional Democrats kept single payer advocates engaged in the process, even if they didn’t support the idea or didn’t think it was achievable, they would have been able to use single-payer folks as a foil when negotiating with the privatization/entitlement-cutting crowd, thereby forcing the Republicans to use that as the far-left position, and likely allowing the compromise position to be something substantially to the left of what was actually achieved. Instead, Obama and the Dems went into the healthcare debate with the public option (even the neutered, limited one that was eventually the only version that ever had a chance of passage) as the furthest-left position, resulting in them having to negotiate it away to arrive at the final PPACA.

Unfortunately, the opposition appears to understand this dynamic all too well. Paul Ryan’s current economic “roadmap” was never explicitly endorsed by John Boehner or the GOP leadership…probably because they knew it was a) nuts and b) unsellable to the American public or even to the rest of congress. Nevertheless, they’ve let Ryan and his plan suck up the spotlight over the past week as budget talks loom. Why allow so much air-time to a plan they don’t even endorse? Because it makes what they really want seem ever so much more reasonable. And, in this case, it made the opposition (Obama, apparently) – adopt an already-reviled plan (the Catfood Commission’s recommendations) as his best go-to strategy, because he and Dems are forced to deal with Ryan’s plan as the furthest-out right-wing plan. Imagine how much LESS Obama and Dems would currently be feeling they had to “be flexible” about if Republicans had, unprompted, abandoned Ryan’s plan?

Over at the excellent economics blog Modeled Behavior, Karl Smith wonders if perhaps Obama hasn’t been sandbagging the GOP (he uses the term “Fabian progressive”) all this time:

Given the behavior of the Obama White House, it looks to me like their primary objective is to secure an expansion in the scope of government funded health care by avoiding conflict on all other issues.

This explains the steady even if bloody push to pass the PPACA. It explains the seeming disinterest in meaningful shifts in policy in other areas. It explains why Obama was for the stimulus when it seemed popular and conceded to austerity when it seemed popular.

This is a classic Fabian approach. Avoid engaging the enemy when time is on your side.

In other words, a sort of political rope-a-dope, giving the GOP enough rope to hang themselves with by making sure that one’s basic goals are achieved, and conserving one’s strength and political capital for another time when it’s more needed. Classic Obama, the cerebral “no-drama” approach. Smith rightly points out that:

As always the Fabian defense is unpopular with hawks, who would prefer that the enemy be engaged and crushed. However, it is successful.

He points to several high-profile liberal commentators, from Paul Krugman to Ezra Klein (I’d add Rachel Maddow as of last night) who are disappointed in the way the recent budget cutting debates unfolded. Those folks have indeed been anywhere from sounding the alarm to registering disgust with these developments.

It’s hard to argue with Smith’s characterization of the Fabian approach, and I’m even willing to buy the argument that this may be what Obama has been consciously pursuing in regard to the GOP’s policies. But reading Smith’s post made me wonder about an even more fundamental question: is Obama’s approach the correct one? Here’s the bit of Smith’s post that intrigued me most:

…I think the politics of these big issues is not that important. I suspect that in the end the equilibrium will be determined by fundamentals. However, if you were going to play a pro-progressive political strategy this doesn’t seem like a bad one.

I think the part about the equilibrium (and thus, the correctness of any argument) being determined by the fundamentals is exactly right. It’s also a bit obvious, though, and what sparked this post was the realization that this only validates Obama’s position if his views about the fundament

als are correct. The “rope-a-dope” strategy of making sure one’s own fundamental goals are met while not going to the mat on every issue the opposition throws up works only if the benefits of securing one’s own goals outweigh the drawbacks of taking a comparatively laissez-faire approach to other, “nonessential” issues. Put more simply: you’d better be damn sure you’re right. Obama’s supporters (reflexive and more well-considered) always like to return to the hoary old cliché that Obama is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. But is he really that much smarter than everyone else in the room?

In other words: what other things are lost by not engaging on other issues (or, in Smith’s formulation, nearly ANY issues)? What is lost by allowing the GOP to win major victories in other areas? Obama loyalists like Joy Reid at The Reid Report are already spinning this most recent squabble as a win for Obama, claiming that he didn’t give much away by cutting the recent budget deal that wasn’t either a) nonessential or b) already targeted. She may be right. I doubt it, but for the sake of argument, it’s certainly possible that this was another example of the famous “eleventy-dimensional chess” brilliance of the Obama administration – so great a victory that most people can’t even see its brilliance yet

If that’s the case – or if Smith is right that Obama is sandbagging the GOP because he believes the real victory is in getting this health care law on the books (and then expanding and improving on it once people get to know – and like – it’s provisions), then we’ve all just been saved. But Reid’s hopes and Smith’s guesses about Fabian progressivism on the part of Obama rest on the assumption that more is not lost, either through opportunity cost or through actual losses – like to funding of programs, etc – by refusing to fully engage battle on other issues, or by allowing others (even congressional Dems) to set priorities and agendas on key issues. Smith ends his post by observing that “…if you were going to play a pro-progressive political strategy this doesn’t seem like a bad one” (meaning Smith’s guess that Obama is being what he calls a “Fabian progressive”). And he’s right, it’s not a bad one…IF (and only if) one is correct in one’s assumptions that at the end of the day, the “fundamentals” favor one both in reality and in the public understanding. That’s why I’m less inclined than folks like Joy Reid to simply declare another glorious victory for Obama (though she’s right to point out that one poll shows public support for Obama’s actions) and dismiss the points raised by people on the order of Nobel prize-winners and the sharpest mind in the political commentariat these days.