Bernie Sanders may represent Vermont and have a New York accent, but right now he looks a little like a Texas Ranger. The motto for those Lone Star State lawmen -- "One Riot, One Ranger" -- comes from their legendary ability to face down a hostile crowd single-handed. Bernie just faced down something that may be even scarier that rioting cowboys in the Panhandle: a powerful Democratic chairman and his entire Committee.
Sen. Sanders isn't a Democrat (he's an Independent socialist who caucuses with them), but he has a lot to teach progressives inside and outside the party about how to stand up for what's right: Detach from party leaders, hang tough, and be prepared to walk away if you can't negotiate something reasonable. He's fighting for better policies -- and ones that the public strongly supports. (Our American Majority project has more details.)
Let's hope they're paying attention across the country -- and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Card players say any hand can be a winning hand -- or a losing one. That's true in politics, too. The Republican Party has been winning games with a weak hand since 2008.
The GOP's primary budget goal hasn't changed. They want low taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and they've pursued their goal in a systematic way. First they framed deficits, rather than unemployment or economic stagnation, as our most urgent problem. Then they pushed to make sure that most of the deficit reduction comes from spending cuts, not tax increases. And they want those revenue increases to hit the middle class rather than the wealthy, by keeping the top tax rates low and targeting tax "expenditures" which support middle-class health insurance and mortgages.
They've outplayed the Democrats at every step. For two years the Democrats had the White House and solid majorities in both houses of Congress, yet the Republican minority stymied, stalemated, and weakened every initiative they proposed. Democrats from the president on down became masters at negotiating... against themselves. Time after time they made two fatal mistakes: They made it clear that they really, really wanted a deal, and they made most of their concessions before they even came to the table.
Republicans are still bluffing. The Democrats hold the Senate and the White House -- that's two out of three, at last count -- and public sentiment. But headlines nowadays always sound as if the Republicans hold equal power -- no, make that more power -- than the Democrats.
That's because they do. Their power comes from being aggressive, bidding high, and being willing to walk away -- even if "walking away" means shutting down the government. They know how to negotiate.
Case in point: Republicans would be happy with a 3:1 mix of spending cuts over tax increases. So John Boehner insisted again yesterday that they want no tax increases at all. The radical bill to dismantle Medicare, which the Republicans passed last month, is also widely seen as a "high bid" for dramatic cuts to programs for America's seniors. They're negotiating.
The president, on the other hand, gave a speech on deficits last month that was brilliant rhetorically, but accepted the Republican premise that deficits were more important than jobs or growth. And he opened by proposing the 3:1 mix that's probably the GOP's end game. Once again, Democrats folded before the first hand was dealt.
A story in the Hill today began with these words: "Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Tuesday presented a budget proposal to Senate Democrats that calls for an even balance -- 50 percent to 50 percent -- of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit." What a pleasant surprise. That's a much more reasonable, popular, and progressive starting point than the president's -- and from centrist Senator Kent Conrad, no less.
How did that happen? As the Hill reports,
"Conrad has moved his budget proposal to the left in order to gain the
support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an outspoken progressive on the
budget panel. Sanders has called for "shared sacrifice" in reducing the
deficit and wants to increase taxes on families earning over a $1
million a year." Adds the Hill:
Sanders wants Democrats to take a "hard look at corporate welfare" and argues there's "huge amounts of money to be gained by ending a number of provisions which enable corporations who make billions of dollars in profits to pay nothing in taxes."
Sanders criticized Conrad's first budget proposal, which the chairman shared with the Democratic conference last week, for not requiring more sacrifice from corporations and wealthy taxpayers to balance the budget.
Conrad has scrambled to win Sanders' support over the past week. Without his vote, Conrad can't pass a budget out of the Budget Committee, which is narrowly split between 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans.