If you liked the government shutdown, the debt ceiling fight, political polarization, and agonizing gridlock of the past few weeks, you will love the Congressional budget talks ahead.
The deal to end the shutdown and temporarily raise the debt ceiling called for reconciling the Senate budget that cuts Pentagon spending, ends some corporate subsidies, and closes some tax loopholes for the rich with Paul Ryan's budget that the House passed this spring, seriously cutting social programs. Ryan and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are co-chairing the conference committee to do this, and they must report any agreement by December 13. If they fail to agree, as seems likely, or if both chambers fail to pass a unified budget, or if President Obama refuses to sign it into law, the Budget Control Act of 2011 will kick in, imposing automatic, across-the-board cuts, or sequestration. Using figures from the Bipartisan Policy Center, this will trim the Pentagon budget for Fiscal Year 2014 by an estimated $54.7 billion, and reduce by a similar amount non-defense spending, including Medicare.
Allowing these automatic cuts would be a mammoth failure. But a budget agreement could prove even worse. Apart from the harm done to the weakest among us, these cuts will further weaken an economy in which overall demand is still too low to create decent growth and provide sufficient jobs. John Maynard Keynes long ago explained how this works, and even the IMF is beginning to catch on. As I wrote in April, "When times are tough and the private sector pulls back, borrow or print money to stimulate demand. When growth returns, pay down the borrowing."
Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling who has staked his presidential ambitions on the shutdown, abhors such rational economic timing. He grew up schooled in the "free market" trinity of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, which -- for all his vaunted intellect -- makes Cruz easy to ridicule as a libertarian lunatic, which he is. But, compared to the real movers and shakers in the budget and debt debate, Cruz is only a political pipsqueak barely worth attacking. I would leave him largely to the barbs of country club Republicans and those in the business community who are coming to see the danger to themselves of using right-wing populists and libertarian ideologues as shock troops. Even the billionaire Koch brothers, who are massively funding opposition to Obamacare, seem of mixed minds about using the shutdown as a tactic against it.
Progressives in and to the left of "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party" would do better to counter the "centrist" arguments of people like Peter J. "Pete" Peterson, the octogenarian Wall Street billionaire who has led the class war to slash Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security ever since the early days of the Reagan administration. More than anyone else, Peterson and his amen chorus in the media fabricated the supposed "debt crisis" that still has us in its mythic clutches. Before most non-Texans even heard of Cruz, Peterson and those who kiss his coattails persuaded Obama to create the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, headed by retired Republican senator Alan Simpson and Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, the Wall Street banker Erskine Bowles. Their report led directly to the catastrophically stupid Budget Control Act and its automatic cuts, and will frame much of the debate ahead.
If only Obama, who stood firmly against Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare, had stood up against Peterson's "debt crisis" fear-mongering. He did not and still does not. To his credit, he never endorsed the final recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles panel. But he signed the Budget Control Act in exchange for an earlier hike in the debt ceiling. He -- along with the Democratic leadership in Congress -- has accepted as a starting point for negotiations some $80 billion in across-the-board cuts that have already been made. And, he appears open to weakening Medicare by means-testing and reducing Social Security payments by linking cost of living adjustments to the Consumer Price Index. This leaves it up to citizen activists on the left to let Congress and the country know that we will fight any cuts to social spending.
No doubt, a no-compromise stance will get us tarred as extremists, much like the Tea Party on the right. But we cannot let ourselves be cowed by attacks from bought-and-paid-for politicians, ubiquitous political consultants, and corporate media pundits. In fact, I would go even further. As crazy as I find Tea Party economics, as outrageous as I find their opposition to health care as a human right, and as racist as some of them appear to be, we should learn from the movement-building approach they took in their shut-down fight. They knew what they were for and against. They kept their demands simple. They stuck to them, showing backbone that leading Democrats seem not to have. And if they lost the battle, they are closer today to winning the war they were fighting, which is to take over and remake the Republican Party, with the wonderfully unelectable Ted Cruz now a leading candidate to be its presidential candidate in 2016.
I also think we should make common cause with Tea Party Republicans in fighting for the First and Fourth Amendments and against the Surveillance State, the use of drones in targeted assassinations, the military-industrial complex, and an imperial foreign policy.
In all this, we need not become similarly suicidal, crazy, isolationist, or in any way reckless with the well-being of others, as the Tea Party groups are and will continue to be. Very much a wave of the past, the right-wing evangelicals and libertarians who identify with Cruz and Rand Paul are overwhelmingly white, small town voters who feel they are losing the white-bread Christian America they thought was theirs. They're right: they are, as non-white immigrants and their children become a large part of the electorate and as a new generation of voters swings to the left. This is the wave of the future, which can help build a decent society, but not if Democratic Party leaders continue to compromise away what remains of our social safety net.
*A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."