(originally published at The Huffington Post)
How broken is today's political debate? The only politician standing up for most Republican voters on today's most burning political issue is... a Socialist.
The question is whether we reduce the deficit only through spending cuts, or also by raising taxes on the rich. This should be an easy issue for Democrats to stand on... and run on. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 72% of of those surveyed agreed that federal taxes should be raised for households making more than $250,000 -- including 55% of Republicans. Yet even with the GOP leadership far to the right of the country on this issue, Democrats haven't taken an unequivocal position.
Who's speaking for this Republican majority (and most everybody else) in Washington? Only Sen. Bernie Sanders, Socialist from Vermont. Sanders has unequivocally said that he won't support a deal to raise the debt ceiling unless it includes higher taxes on on the rich. Where are the Democrats? Nancy Pelosi's been marginalized from the discussions, even though a deal won't be possible without the support of Democrats in Congress. The White House and Harry Reid have refused to take a firm stand.
Sanders laid out his position in a speech in the Senate chamber yesterday with a "shared sacrifice" theme:
The wealthiest Americans and the most profitable corporations in this country must pay their fair share. At least 50 percent of any deficit reduction package must come from revenue raised by ending tax breaks for the wealthy and eliminating tax loopholes that benefit large, profitable corporations and Wall Street financial institutions. A sensible deficit reduction package must also include significant cuts to unnecessary and wasteful Pentagon spending.
The Republicans insist on rejecting a majority of their own voters, as well as 74% of Independents and 83% of all Democrats, by pushing for a plan that would reduce government deficits exclusively through spending cuts -- cuts that affect the middle class, poor people, and everyone who hopes to receive Social Security and Medicare benefits someday.
The "shared sacrifice" principle expressed by Sanders also included demands that there be no cuts to Medicare or Social Security. The 50/50 goal is a reasonable one, which makes it surprising that others haven't embraced it already. In fact, the only problem with a 50/50 split is that it may be too reasonable, now that the rich have become so much richer and the rest of the country has been forced to struggle so much.
But it's a mature and balanced approach, and it should be embraced by other politicians quickly. The radical right has already skewed the national debate so effectively that a nation wracked by joblessness, wage stagnation, and broad pockets of recession is only hearing about deficit reduction from its leaders. If we must obsess about deficits to the exclusion of more pressing problems -- which tragically seems to be the case -- then it's time to make sure that discussion is a sensible one.
The Sanders speech makes a number of excellent points, although at 90 minutes it's too long for its own good. (The Senator won national acclaim for a filibuster of the tax deal last year, but that doesn't mean every speech needs to be a filibuster.)
While the Republicans represent the radical right and Sanders represents the American majority, there are some ringers in the debate, too, like the Senate's Gang of Five (formerly the Gang of Six -- at this rate they'll soon be the Gang of Four). The Gang may show its colors soon, pretending to be "balanced" by pulling a sneaky rhetorical trick favored by the right-wing Pete Peterson crowd.
Here's how the trick works: When discussions turn to raising taxes on the wealthy you'll hear them use phrases like "tax expenditures" instead. That's a code word for ending deductions that primarily benefit the middle class, like those that apply to mortgages and medical benefits. These "centrists" (who retain the name despite being far to the right of most Republicans) will try to convince people that this is a reasonable substitute for tax hikes on the rich. It's not.
There's a reason why the Republicans, with their gift for manipulative phrasing, keep repeating the mantra "government spending... government spending... government spending..." They don't want the discussion to include revenues as well as spending. But if it does, then they'll throw the middle class under the bus with targeted reductions in tax expenditures that don't favor the wealthy (reductions that always manage to exclude the wildly unpopular corporate tax breaks for oil and gas companies).
Republicans are playing chicken with the US economy. Like the dumb kids in Rebel Without a Cause they're willing to drive the car off a cliff (with us in the back seat) - that is, unless the Democrats don't cave first. Unfortunately, that's too often been the response.
We've said that the "shared sacrifice" concept may be too reasonable - but not if it's used as a line in the sand rather than another way for Democrats to negotiate against themselves. In fact, it may be the perfect way for Democrats (and any responsible Republicans) to say "this far and no further." The president may want to avoid a showdown, but there can be no deal without Democrats in the House and Senate. They're the ones on the front line. They're the ones who must confront the reckless Republicans, those would-be rebels who really don't have a cause... except further enriching their wealthy patrons.
The vast majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, are going unheard in this debate. This may be one of those moments when a reminder from a constituent... or a flood of them... is the only thing that can make our representative democracy act a little more representative.