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Robert Kuttner: Fatal Triangles

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, President Obama has launched his latest version of post-partisanship. It seems to be serving him well. His approval ratings are up, Republicans have slightly toned down the rhetoric, and the President is in his favorite stance as the man who bridges differences.

Obama has gestured right by appointing centrists to top positions and embracing a pro-business rhetoric decrying regulatory excess, but also appeased the Democratic base by wisely rejecting calls to put Social Security on the chopping block. Based on his video to supporters, he will call both for deficit reduction in the long term but increased anti-recession spending now, knowing that Republicans won’t give him a nickel.

All this will help position him to win re-election in 2012. Having frothing-at-the-mouth Republicans control the House may well be better for Obama than having to deal with a frustrated Democratic Congressional majority.

If you liked Bill Clinton as Triangulator, you will love the era of Triangulation II. The danger, of course, is that the man at the apex of the triangle fares better than his party. He is now Mr. Reasonable Centrist — except that in substance there is no reasonable center to be had. A well funded and tightly organized right wing has been pulling American politics to the right for three decades now. And with a few instructive exceptions, Democrats who respond by calling for a new centrism are just acting as the right’s enablers. What exactly is the beneficial substance of this centrism? Just how far right do we have to go for Republicans to cut any kind of deal? Isn’t the mirage of a Third Way a series of moving targets — where every compromise begets a further compromise? Democrats once played this game well, in reverse. In the period when Democrats dominated and set the national agenda, it was Republicans who moved to the center. Eisenhower (who was seriously considered as a possible Democratic presidential candidate) accepted the New Deal, and launched large new spending programs like the interstate highway system. Nixon proposed a guaranteed annual income law, sponsored a national health program slightly to the left of Obama’s, and signed one bill after another expanding health, safety and environmental regulation. Democrats defined the center. But for at least two decades, Republican themes — privatize, deregulate, shrink government, cut taxes, liberate business — have been ascendant, while life for regular people has become more precarious, and too many Democrats have embraced Republican-lite. If you look back over the past several administrations, in most bipartisan compromises it was usually the Democrats who got rolled. The last major policy compromise where the right gave serious ground was the Social Security rescue of 1983. The 1986 tax reform was supposed to cut rates and close loopholes, but at the end of the day the tax code became less progressive and the business elite went right on inventing new loopholes. If President Obama proposes another tax reform in this spirit, watch out. The 1996 welfare reform, a bipartisan compromise so punitive that three of Clinton’s sub-cabinet experts resigned in protest, cut the welfare rolls, but inflicted huge hardship on poor people. As long as there was full employment, the damage was disguised. With unemployment in excess of nine percent, the massive hole in the safety net stands revealed. No Child Left Behind was a massive case of bait-and-switch. Bush II offered Democrats more federal spending in exchange for higher national standards. The real result was a plague of teach-to-the-test requirements, the better to bash public schools and soften up public opinion for voucher schools — and not nearly enough federal aid. Even the one epic case widely held to be a success story of bi-partisan compromise, the Earned Income Tax Credit, is trickier than it seems. Yes, the EITC does transfer a lot of money to the working poor. But by disguising an income transfer as a tax credit, the provision adds fuel to the ideology that the best thing government can do for you is cut your taxes. Under Bush II, progressives managed to save Social Security from privatization not by seeking compromise, but by standing their ground. The array of progressive bills enacted in the last hundred hours of the late, Democratic 111th Congress became law not because Democrats scuttled to the center, but because they hung tough and remembered what they stood for. In Sunday’s New York Times, there is a full page, characteristically fatuous ad by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, with the coy headline, “There is no ‘D’ or ‘R’ in ‘Solutions.'” Get it? Partisanship just stands in the way of technical solutions that should be obvious to all people of good will. It just happens that the Peterson Foundation’s “apolitical” solutions are deeply conservative, whether on cutting Social Security and Medicare, or tying government’s hands when it comes to recovery spending. In case you missed it, there is a fierce debate going on. One side, which now controls the House and effectively can block legislation in the Senate, disparages science, wants America to be close to a theocracy, craves a return to Wild West gun-slinging, would gut social insurance, and repeal most of the affirmative gains of social investment and public-interest regulation since the New Deal. The other side recognizes the value of public spending in a deep recession and beyond, wants a progressive tax code, defends Social Security, Medicare and the new health reform, wants the financial economy to be servant of the real economy, supports regulation that benefits workers and consumers, and accepts evidence-based science when it comes to climate change and other issues. Unfortunately, this other side describes only about half the Democratic Party Give the Republicans this: they know what they stand for. A good chunk of the Democratic Party today doesn’t quite. But where exactly is the middle ground, except in pundit-pleasing gestures like lions sitting together with lambs? How do you compromise with True Believers? Based on early reports, the President’s State of the Union Address will be better than some progressives feared. They can take some credit for warning him off Social Security cuts. And good for Obama for calling for more public investment and letting Republicans jeer, revealing the emptiness of the Republican recovery program. When he finishes, Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee, will give the Republican response. Let’s hope we don’t feel that someone should get equal time to give a Democratic response. Read the original article on The Huffington Post. Robert Kuttner’s latest book, A Presidency In Peril, is available now.


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