Commentary Magazine


Topic: fiscal crisis

Young Dem Voters Won’t Stay Bought

Since President Obama’s relatively narrow yet still clear re-election victory, both liberals and conservatives have engaged in a virtual non-stop orgy of analysis geared toward explaining the result. Some of this discussion has been useful as Republicans have been forced to come to grips with the fact that they have been pushing away Hispanics and relying on assumptions about the way social issues played with most voters that may no longer be true. But, as happens after almost every election, there is also an equal amount of nonsense being put forward about how 2012 marks a turning pointing in our political history that may lead to realignment. As recently as 2005, Republicans were playing this game and now it is the turn of liberals to jump to unsustainable conclusions.

The latest example of this sort of writing comes in today’s New York Times as Sheryl Gay Stolberg details her journey to Montana to claim President Obama’s success with young voters may lead to an irreversible shift in the country’s political alignment. Her thesis is that the Democrats’ advantage with this demographic isn’t merely limited to the way their acceptance of gay marriage and abortion have affected those under 30. Instead, she goes farther than that and claims that young voters are now as addicted to entitlement spending as some of their elders. This belief in the goodness of government largesse and the alleged corresponding decline in cynicism about big government will create a new political reality that will be baked into the system even as these voters get older.

There is no denying the appeal of free stuff from the government for citizens of any age or background. In 21st century America, everyone has their snout in the proverbial trough of federal spending and that impacts attempts to cut spending or to rally support for fiscal sanity. But the problem with the belief that the young Montanans who like the idea of preserving Medicare and Social Security as they are today will form a Democratic firewall to preserve an Obama majority indefinitely is that the assumption upon which this idea rests is built on sand. Sooner or later most young members of the workforce are going to catch on to the fact that they are the losers in the liberal entitlement Ponzi scheme, not the winners.

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Since President Obama’s relatively narrow yet still clear re-election victory, both liberals and conservatives have engaged in a virtual non-stop orgy of analysis geared toward explaining the result. Some of this discussion has been useful as Republicans have been forced to come to grips with the fact that they have been pushing away Hispanics and relying on assumptions about the way social issues played with most voters that may no longer be true. But, as happens after almost every election, there is also an equal amount of nonsense being put forward about how 2012 marks a turning pointing in our political history that may lead to realignment. As recently as 2005, Republicans were playing this game and now it is the turn of liberals to jump to unsustainable conclusions.

The latest example of this sort of writing comes in today’s New York Times as Sheryl Gay Stolberg details her journey to Montana to claim President Obama’s success with young voters may lead to an irreversible shift in the country’s political alignment. Her thesis is that the Democrats’ advantage with this demographic isn’t merely limited to the way their acceptance of gay marriage and abortion have affected those under 30. Instead, she goes farther than that and claims that young voters are now as addicted to entitlement spending as some of their elders. This belief in the goodness of government largesse and the alleged corresponding decline in cynicism about big government will create a new political reality that will be baked into the system even as these voters get older.

There is no denying the appeal of free stuff from the government for citizens of any age or background. In 21st century America, everyone has their snout in the proverbial trough of federal spending and that impacts attempts to cut spending or to rally support for fiscal sanity. But the problem with the belief that the young Montanans who like the idea of preserving Medicare and Social Security as they are today will form a Democratic firewall to preserve an Obama majority indefinitely is that the assumption upon which this idea rests is built on sand. Sooner or later most young members of the workforce are going to catch on to the fact that they are the losers in the liberal entitlement Ponzi scheme, not the winners.

Stolberg has a point when she makes the case that social issues like gay marriage may be a losing battle for conservatives who underestimate the way popular culture has altered the views of many Americans in the last generation. However, the affection for government she discovers among some Montanans who would presumably be just the sort of Western individualists that would disdain Washington makes a less persuasive argument for future Democratic dominance.

It may be that many of those interviewed by Stolberg like the idea of free health care, more government subsidies for education and government “investment” in job creation that will provide some of them with paychecks for a while. But while many seniors may regard the national debt that has been piling up in order to pay for all these goodies is the next generation’s problem, these under-30 voters are going to live long enough to see the day of reckoning for the government’s spending problem. If they do get productive jobs in the private sector, they’re not going to like the way their tax rates are going to skyrocket in order to pay for the free stuff they like so much today. They are also going to realize that the administration’s pledge to keep entitlements in tact is not likely to survive President Obama’s time in office, if that long.

No one should assume that the ticking debt time bomb ensures Republican victories any more than the appeal of government benefits guarantees votes in perpetuity for the Democrats. The GOP has a lot of work to do to reinvigorate their brand but the notion that a pro-growth platform that tells the truth about entitlements to the people is a loser is a Democratic fairy tale. Democrats may buy some young voters with promises about entitlements that can’t be kept. But the idea that they will stay bought despite the looming debt crisis is not one that Obama’s successors should stake their careers on. 

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An Administration That Won’t Face Reality

President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.

But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.

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President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.

But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.

Lew’s hard-line liberalism is exactly what qualifies him to sit in Obama’s new cabinet of yes-men. That he has the trust of the president after serving him faithfully as White House chief of staff is to his credit, but that doesn’t change the fact that an administration economic team that is dedicated to defending the status quo is exactly what the country doesn’t need as we sink further into a period of fiscal crisis.

Mr. Obama seems to think that he can avoid the usual second term blues that afflict most presidents by creating a team with a hard ideological edge that won’t lose focus or lack the energy to fight for the things he believes. That’s an interesting working theory for how to be the first president to avoid a miserable second term since Theodore Roosevelt. But he and Jack Lew seem to think that he can alter the basic laws of economics the way King Canute sought to alter the laws of nature at the seashore.

By replacing Tim Geithner—a man who for all of his flaws had a grasp of what was good or bad for the nation’s economy—with a left-wing ideologue, Obama is telling us that he thinks his second term will be one in which his political beliefs can contradict the basic fact that the United States cannot tax its way out of its spending problem. While the liberal press continues to portray the president’s conservative opponents as extremists, it is clearer than ever that the real radicals are in the White House and now at the Treasury.

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Must GOP Bow to Obama’s Fiscal Demands?

With the president’s election victory still fresh in their minds, Democrats are assuming that Tuesday’s results mean that Congressional Republicans are bound to bow to their demands for tax increases. Such sentiments are understandable given the Democrats’ clear victory in the presidential contest as well as their gains in Congress. Having campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy, there may be little reason to assume President Obama is going to back down on his demands and, as many liberals have already pointed out, he’s going to be bitterly criticized if he does compromise on his soak-the-rich approach. Yet though Republicans may still be shell shocked by the election returns, there is no reason for them to cave in on their principles just because the president and his media cheering section expect them to.

House Speaker John Boehner sounded an appropriate note, albeit one that was pure political boilerplate, when he said yesterday, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.” But his airy rhetoric contains a kernel of truth. If the country is to avoid going over the fiscal cliff in the next month, and avoid the terrible consequences that would result from a failure to reach a budget deal, it is going to require the kind of presidential leadership and ability to compromise that Obama has never been willing to provide in his first four years in office. The question before the country is not so much the one that liberals have been asking about Republicans simply waving the white flag as it is whether the president can actually bargain in good faith and get a deal.

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With the president’s election victory still fresh in their minds, Democrats are assuming that Tuesday’s results mean that Congressional Republicans are bound to bow to their demands for tax increases. Such sentiments are understandable given the Democrats’ clear victory in the presidential contest as well as their gains in Congress. Having campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy, there may be little reason to assume President Obama is going to back down on his demands and, as many liberals have already pointed out, he’s going to be bitterly criticized if he does compromise on his soak-the-rich approach. Yet though Republicans may still be shell shocked by the election returns, there is no reason for them to cave in on their principles just because the president and his media cheering section expect them to.

House Speaker John Boehner sounded an appropriate note, albeit one that was pure political boilerplate, when he said yesterday, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.” But his airy rhetoric contains a kernel of truth. If the country is to avoid going over the fiscal cliff in the next month, and avoid the terrible consequences that would result from a failure to reach a budget deal, it is going to require the kind of presidential leadership and ability to compromise that Obama has never been willing to provide in his first four years in office. The question before the country is not so much the one that liberals have been asking about Republicans simply waving the white flag as it is whether the president can actually bargain in good faith and get a deal.

Ever since last year’s debt ceiling crisis that set in motion the events that could lead to an automatic tax increase and sequestration of funds that would require massive across-the-board budget cuts for vital services and national defense, both the president and his antagonists have acted as if they had nothing to lose by going to the brink. In particular, the president’s strategy has seemed to revolve around an effort to drive the GOP leaders in the House away from a deal so as to be able to use their refusal to bow to his dictates as a political talking point. Obama’s model was the 1995 government shutdown in which President Clinton managed to outmaneuver then House Speaker Newt Gingrich into a corner and make him take the blame for the problem.

Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor managed to avoid being fitted for the Gingrich clown suits but no deal was ever struck that they — or their caucus — could live with. But most observers seem to think that after the president’s re-election they have no choice but to give in on the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Congress’s reputation is in tatters and it stands to reason that the GOP would prefer to avoid not only the catastrophic cuts and taxes that a failure to make a deal would entail but the blame for the economic distress that would ensue.

However, the House Republicans aren’t the only ones feeling some pressure.

Most Democrats may be strutting this week and engaging in triumphalist rhetoric about their ability to dominate the country’s politics for the foreseeable future. But the president understands that a budget standoff could trigger an economic downturn that could cripple the start of his second term and set in motion a train of events that will make the next four years a nightmare for the country and for him. Though Republicans don’t want to be the scapegoats for a budget meltdown, the president needs a deal far more than they do.

But in order to get one, the president is going to have to eschew the sort of high-handed approach to Congress that has been the pattern for his first term. While that worked politically for him, it also served to give Boehner less room to negotiate since the president infuriated the GOP caucus and helped make it easier for them to dig in their heels and oppose a compromise. If the president wants Boehner to give him a deal, that will mean sitting down and asking for more revenue in ways that the GOP can live with–such as closing loopholes and deductions, but not confiscatory tax policies that will cripple economic growth.

For two years, President Obama has refused to take this deal, since it was in his political interest to portray Boehner and the GOP Congress as extremists. But though his supporters don’t seem to realize it, his political interests now lie in a policy that requires him to avoid the class warfare rhetoric and tactics designed to demonize Republicans he has employed in past negotiations.

The president needs to negotiate and take the deal Boehner is offering him with modifications that will allow him to save face. Doing so is good for the country and for his prospects for a second term that isn’t as awful as those of most of his predecessors.

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Is This the Ryan Teachable Moment?

Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.

This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.

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Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.

This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.

Liberals have been telling themselves the more Americans learn about what Ryan believes, the less likely they will be to vote for Romney. They believe, as Cohen says, that Ryan is the most radical Republican leader since Barry Goldwater and are sure that this guarantees a victory for the Democrats. But the genius of Ryan’s appeal is that he combines Ronald Reagan’s down home geniality with the sort of wonkish command of economics we have rarely seen in a national candidate. Rather than hoping Republicans will feature Ryan and his proposals, Democrats should fear the exposure he will get. The more people listen to Ryan’s notions about economic freedom and reining in the cycle of federal spending and taxing, the less likely they will be to accept the Democrats’ lame defense of the status quo.

There are good arguments against allowing Ryan to overshadow the top of the ticket. And, as Postrel admits, Ryan videos about the budget could provide Democrats with more material to attack. But as she rightly points out, the danger to the GOP isn’t that they would provide Obama’s campaign with ammunition, but that the attention span of the American people in 2012 is so much shorter than it was in 1992 that no one would listen to Ryan the way they did to Perot. But as she writes, no one expected the public to listen to Perot then either. The reason they did is there was a palpable hunger for new ideas and serious proposals about a problem most thinking people cared about. Ultimately, the voters rightly decided Perot wasn’t the sort of person who should be trusted with nuclear weapons, but his message resonated.

Republicans are capable of doing better than Perot’s primitive ads and they have a far better spokesman. It’s also possible to promote these ideas in a way in which the pecking order on the ticket is not reversed. Twenty years after Perot changed American politics, it may well be time for another lecture series on the budget and the size of the government that will ensure we have the serious debate about the fiscal crisis the country needs and deserves. Rather than a bonanza for the Democrats, the teachable moment for Paul Ryan’s ideas may have arrived.

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