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Life Arts    H2'ed 12/8/12

Robert Reich on "Bungee-Jumping Over the Fiscal Cliff"

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My guest today is Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Bob.  You recently wrote a thought-provoking piece which you colorfully titled, "Bungee-Jumping Over the Fiscal Cliff".  You  recommend a course of action for President Obama in the mudwrestling about the Bush tax cuts due to expire very soon. Can you please bring us up to speed? 

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The President seems to be on the right course right now, willing to allow the U.S. to go over the so-called "fiscal cliff" if the Republicans don't agree to tax increases on the wealthy. The next step will be to offer the Republicans specific legislation that extends the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans starting January 1, and force them to vote on it. Such legislation has already passed the Senate, but Republican leaders in the House won't allow it to come up for a vote, because they don't want to embarrass their members.   

So, how exactly does the president force House Republicans to vote on a measure if, as you point out,  they won't allow it to come up for a vote? You've got me stumped.

The pressure is already growing on House Republicans. The Senate has already passed an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent. House Democrats are preparing a discharge petition that would force Boehner to bring the bill to the House for a vote. Business groups are pushing House Republicans as well. There are no guarantees in politics, but the winds are blowing in a positive direction.

Did the American people dodge a bullet? What's your take on the election just over? 

Yes. Romney and other Republicans wanted to do a reverse Robin-Hood -- provide even more rewards for the rich (who are already taking home a higher share of total income and wealth than in living memory) and slash safety nets and programs the poor and middle-class depend on.

Paradoxically, though, the Republicans' frame of debate still dominates public discourse. It's assumed, almost without question, that we have to "get our fiscal house in order" by cutting the budget deficit before we can return to robust growth and low unemployment -- which is precisely the reverse of what we ought to be doing. 
It seems like the Democrats should be in a strong position to move forward with great nominations and appointments.   What stops the president from really capitalizing on the Dems' win, Bob?

Yes, he won. And I think the President is doing a good job rallying Americans behind him on the current "fiscal cliff" negotiations. But on the bigger issues -- more jobs, economic growth, public investments in education and infrastructure, the continuing housing mess, cleaning up Wall Street, widening inequality -- the White House is reluctant to move too far because it realizes how difficult it will be to get anything enacted, and it doesn't want to risk defeat.

Republicans still run the House, and as of now can still stop legislation in the Senate. And even half-way reasonable Republicans are still intimidated by the Tea Party -- the possibility that they'll be opposed in their next primary by someone to their right. And they have to cope with purists in their ranks who are committed to keeping taxes low on the wealthy, even if that means losses for the GOP in 2014.

Meanwhile, Democrats are still reluctant to play hardball. For example, Harry Reed is considering a change in Senate rules to blunt Republicans' abuse of the filibuster, but it's a tiny change that won't really stop this abuse.

In other words, we're dealing with the same asymmetry that's dogged American politics for years: The Republican right is more disciplined, more ruthless, more committed to its beliefs, and more willing to go down with the ship in order to get the results it wants, than are the Democrats. 
Even people who didn't necessarily love Obama but who couldn't stomach the idea of Romney as president pulled together to make sure that Romney lost. But it doesn't feel like the Democrats "won" in the traditional sense. The losers still call the shots and it's harder and harder to make any progress. Are we supposed to just be glad that we aren't sliding backward even faster?  

I for one am not at all content that we're not sliding backwards. Many of our biggest challenges -- which I've referred to -- aren't being addressed. But absent a strong progressive movement outside Washington, they won't be. I've learned over the years, even when I served in Washington, that meaningful change doesn't start in our capital. It begins outside -- and requires that enough citizens are mobilized, energized, and organized to put sufficient pressure on our elected officials to force meaningful change. The big-moneyed interests don't want change that expands the circle of prosperity and opportunity, and challenges entrenched power. They want to entrench their power and wealth to an even greater extent.

It's a delicate balance: Average people should be sufficiently angry about what's happened to our democracy that they make a ruckus. After all, citizenship isn't just about voting every few years, paying taxes, and showing up on occasion for court duty. It's about active participation and engagement in our political life. Yet at the same time, it would be a tragedy if that anger turned to cynicism, because cynics give up. This would cede our democracy to the moneyed interests. 

Well put. Sitting here, one month after the election, would you care to make any predictions as to what we might see in the months ahead?

Hard to predict. To some extent, it depends on whether the recovery picks up steam. If not -- if unemployment remains high, the median wage continues to drop, and most Americans continue to feel economically stressed and insecure -- we could have another outcropping of "Occupy" activity, but hopefully this time more focused on organization and discipline.

I do think many Republicans have learned they can't win by turning the clock backwards on social issues or by bashing immigrants. Women, Latinos, and young people are all becoming too powerful, economically and politically. So the GOP might embrace immigration reform, and let up on its attack on reproductive rights and marriage rights. We might even see a rebirth of "compassionate conservatism" of some sort -- that is, some more discussion in the GOP about how to improve the life chances of the poor and the lower middle class.

But I doubt the GOP will change its stripes on the economy. Its wealthy backers on Wall Street and in board rooms are still willing to spend vast sums, and too many working-class Americans are still vulnerable to the false claim that their problems are due to "big government". 

Yes, the 1% never really seems to loosen its grip, at least not voluntarily.  The lack of election reform, campaign finance reform and media reform [fighting media consolidation] all make it harder for everyone else to be heard, literally and figuratively.  Thanks so much for talking with me again, Bob. I look forward to doing it again.


My other interview with him: Robert Reich on Romney, the New Gilded Age and More September 5, 2012


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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