Tuesday, January 15, 2013

If It's Always a Crisis...

Philip Klein has been urging Republicans to act sensibly on the debt limit, but I'm going to have to call him out on this one:
[I]t’s undeniable that Obama’s first term sent a clear message. For Obama to agree to cut spending, there needs to be a crisis. If Republicans don’t use crises as leverage, Obama will make lofty statements about deficit reduction without actually doing anything about it.
Now, never mind that Klein here equates "deficit reduction" (which Obama has strongly supported by advocating tax increases) with "cut spending." He's pretty clearly interested mainly in the latter, so we'll stick with that.

If Klein's point is just that Obama's main priority is not to slash spending, then that's fine. And Obama's first two years are, I agree, good evidence that if he could get his way on everything, he wouldn't be cutting spending overall -- although, as Klein acknowledges, he might cut spending on some things (along with tax increases) as part of a way of increasing spending on others. But, yes: I think there's an excellent case that those liberals who have convinced themselves that Obama's ultimate preference is to cut federal spending, including Medicare and Social Security, are wrong.

But as far as House Republican strategy is concerned, I'm afraid Klein's analysis won't wash.

The problem is an obvious one: lack of variation in the independent variable. That is, as soon as the Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they've lurched from one crisis to another; there's never been a time when they didn't force a crisis and try to negotiate the regular way.

In their defense, it's pretty normal for all negotiations to go down to the last minute, or at least close to it, or at least it has been since at least the 1980s. Still, it's hard to deny that House Republicans have been embracing the crisis in order to win concessions from Barack Obama, whether the crisis has been a government shutdown, the debt limit, or a sequestration. There has not been, for example, an example of Republicans passing routine continuing resolutions to keep the government going at current levels while Obama repeatedly refuses to budge on his preferences.

So, yeah, I think that Klein is right that giving his druthers, Barack Obama isn't really looking to cut government spending below current levels. But there's no evidence at all that it takes a crisis to get Obama to negotiate.


  1. You neglect to mention that the sequestration is not a "naturally-occuring" crisis point like the appropriations or the debt ceiling, that is, a predictably recurring function of the government. It was a crisis that they deliberately manufactured in order to bring parties back to the negotiating table after the 2011 debt ceiling crisis had passed.

  2. The repeated reliance on crisis situations has to be at least partly related to the reactionary anti-Obama views of Republican institutions and primary voters. The derangement of Obama has resulted in all associations with Obama being a political liability. In an environment where it is impossible to cooperate with Obama on anything without incurring a political cost, Republicans must be maximally hostile to all Democratic initiatives in order to maintain their political careers and avoid challengers from the right, so the only reason to hold substantive negotiations is the emergence of obvious crisis points that, through inaction, would have consequences that a sufficiently large and powerful bloc of House Republicans view as so dire that they overwhelm the negative consequences of negotiating with Obama. It's too politically dangerous for House Republicans to negotiate without a crisis.

    1. That's a good point. But the views of Republican voters are not a purely independent, exogenous variable, or whatever. Many major GOP politicians and party actors, and their media friends have made quite concerted efforts to freak voters out. At least in part, if they weren't doing that, they'd have a somewhat more pliant or reticent base.

    2. I agree. The entire conservative movement has become structured in a way that makes it hostile to constructive engagement in participatory democracy.

  3. So, yeah, I think that Klein is right that giving his druthers, Barack Obama isn't really looking to cut government spending below current levels.

    True, but irrelevant. Why does anyone [who is not a Republican] agree that spending cuts are even necessary?

    This only makes sense if you believe the Republican lie that we have a spending problem not a revenue problem. Clearly, this is not the case.


    Take away the totally non-discretionary spending of the 2008-9 recession and we have a close to balanced budget - even with revenues far, far below trend.

    The math is easy - is anyone bothers to look at the data.

    In the post WW II era the only pres with less spending Growth than BHO is Eisenhower - and he was a genuine deficit/inflation hawk with 3 recessions during his term to show for it.

    The real lesson of BHO's first term is that when the Republicans play hard ball, he caves.



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