“It’s not all I would have liked,” says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking of the deal on the fiscal cliff, “so on to the debt ceiling.”
The battle over the fiscal cliff was only a prelude to the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling—a battle that will likely continue through early March, when the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default on the nation’s debt.
The White House’s and Democrats’ single biggest failure in the cliff negotiations was not getting Republicans’ agreement to raise the debt ceiling.
The last time the debt ceiling had to be raised, in 2011, Republicans demanded major cuts in programs for the poor as well as Medicare and Social Security.
We are now halfway into our own lost decade. Five years ago this month, the economy started to collapse in the largest downturn since the Great Depression. Though the recession has officially been over since 2009, we’ve had a slow and uneven recovery. Unemployment, which dropped from 8.3 percent in January to 7.7 percent in November, remains far too high.
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have declared victory in fending off the fiscal cliff/austerity trap, and there are certainly some things in the agreement that progressives should be pleased about. But we should also understand what Republicans won.
The great Republican triumph of the current negotiation—and whether it came from hard-nosed negotiating or simple capitulation on the White House's part, I'm not sure—is the fact that an end to the debt ceiling was not part of the deal worked out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Nor, for that matter, was the question of sequestration resolved; instead, it was simply put off for two months. That means we'll be facing not one but two more crises, when we get to do this all over again. And when we do, the conditions will be very different.
The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation.
The deal emerging from the Senate on the fiscal cliff is a lousy one. Let me count the ways:
1. Republicans haven’t conceded anything on the debt ceiling, so over the next two months—as the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default—Republicans are likely to do exactly what they did before, which is to hold their votes on raising the debt ceiling hostage to major cuts in programs for the poor and in Medicare and Social Security.
For the ladies, the year’s sound track could have been a strangled gasp, followed by snorting and laughing out loud. The attacks on women’s health, on contraception, on abortion, on the definition of rape—it was all so over the top that very early on it seemed that the Republicans were determined to get out the ladies’ vote for the Democrats in 2012. In one outrageous incident after another, old white dudes and anti-choice women made it clear that they think single women should spend their time smiling modestly, gazing at the floor hoping for a marriage proposal—and that married women should stay barefoot and pregnant, relying on menfolk for pin money and taking care of their babies.
The Supreme Court's most recent year will be remembered primarily for one blockbuster case: NFIB v. Sebelius, in which the Court narrowly upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). This is justified—it's hard to overstate the impact of striking down a sitting administration's crucial legislation for the first time since the New Deal. Given that assembling legislative majorities for new health-care legislation is not likely to be possible again for many years, striking down the most important domestic legislation since the Great Society would have had devastating consequences for the millions of Americans who would have been denied access to health care for the foreseeable future.
Back in 1998, Chuck Hagel, who had been Senator from Nebraska for two years, made news by criticizing the tactics of the Republican candidate for governor, Jon Christensen, for a negative ad campaign. The biggest threat to the American political system, Hagel said, were those who “debase and degrade the political process by straight-out lies and misleading spots on television. It’s a cancer to our system.” It’s darkly ironic that Hagel himself has faced very similar attacks from hawkish neoconservatives in the weeks since he was named as a likely nominee for secretary of Defense. But while these attacks represent an extremely distasteful side of Washington, it’s worth considering what they intended to achieve, and what they say about the current era of U.S. foreign policy.
At first, it looked like 2012 would be another terrible year for immigration reform advocates. Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary by adopting a xenophobic, right-wing platform, advocating for policies against immigrants so terrible they led to self-deportation. Meanwhile Barack Obama continued to deport undocumented workers at an unprecedented pace—he’s sent 1.4 million people out of the country through July of this year—and failed to introduce comprehensive legislation, as he’d promised.
If you’d forgotten just how much state legislatures impact citizens’ day-to-day lives, 2012 was a year full of reminders. From unions to health care to basic civil rights, states have a tremendous amount of power in shaping public policy. That’s no secret to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which offers model bills lawmakers can introduce and has pushed issues like voter ID and the “Stand Your Ground” bills that many believed helped pave the way for the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings in Florida.
There have been few more consequential years in the history of health care in America than 2012. This year saw disasters averted, new problems identified, and hope triumphing over despair. The biggest health-care news in 2012 was the dramatic and surprising decision by the Supreme Court in late June to uphold (for the most part) the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Chief Justice John Roberts shocked his Republican admirers by siding with the liberals on the Court to affirm the constitutionality of the law's individual mandate as a tax, though he also gave Republicans a way to fight back by saying the federal government couldn't force states to accept what is arguably the law's most significant feature: its dramatic expansion of Medicaid.
The NRA wants you to think this guy is coming for your family.
It's quite salutary that Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association are getting so much attention, because the truth is that most Americans aren't familiar with their rhetoric and the reality they inhabit. If you didn't know too much about LaPierre but tuned in to see him on Meet the Press yesterday, you probably came away saying, "This guy is a lunatic" (a word we'll get to in a moment).
I'm not talking about his preferred policy prescriptions. I'm talking about his view of the world. LaPierre gets paid close to a million dollars a year, which I'm guessing allows him a comfortable lifestyle. But he seems to imagine that contemporary America is actually some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape a la Mad Max, where psychotic villains in makeshift armor and face paint cruise through the streets looking for people to kill.
American labor can begin the new year with thanks that 2012 is over. Not that the unions didn’t win some big victories in 2012. Their political programs in key swing states played a major role in President Obama’s re-election, both by turning out minority voters in record numbers in Ohio, Nevada, and Florida and by winning Obama a higher share of white, working-class voters in the industrial Midwest than he won in other regions. Their efforts also helped liberal Democrats hold key Senate seats in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), and pick up Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren). In California, the nation’s mega-state, unions beat back a ballot measure designed to cripple their political programs by a decisive 12.5-percent margin, turning out so many voters that they also helped a key tax-hike measure pass at the polls and enabled the Democrats to win super-majorities in the state legislature.