We're starting to get some details about the budget cuts the White House and congressional Republicans agreed to, and it isn't pretty. The question now is, can Democrats successfully establish a context that will make the upcoming budget fights more likely to conclude in their favor?
The first thing they'll have to do to make that happen is this: Stop telling us it could have been worse. It's true that it could have been worse, but that's utterly irrelevant at this point. Arguing that serves to make the cuts seem less painful than they actually are, when what Democrats want to do at this point is to draw as much attention as possible to the pain, so everyone understands just what Republicans forced.
One of the most essential facts about American politics is that Americans dislike "government" in the abstract but love almost everything government does and want more of it. The flip side is that they like "cutting spending" in the abstract but hate cutting spending on specific, concrete things. So how do you win this debate? You talk about the specific spending cuts Republicans forced. That way, when we're going through this debate again over the 2012 budget, people will have a clearer sense of what's actually at stake. Talking Points Memo has details of what's getting cut. Here are a few samples:
- Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (WIC): $504 million cut
- COPS program for local police officers: $296 million cut
- Energy efficiency and renewable energy programs: $438 million cut
- FEMA first responder grants: $786 million cut
- Community health centers: $600 million cut
That's just a tiny taste. To repeat: The more concrete the discussion is, the clearer the actual price of what Republicans want to do becomes, and the more success Democrats will have in minimizing the damage in the next rounds of this debate. Republicans will be overjoyed if this discussion can stay at an abstract level, where we never talk about the substance of their cuts. Are Democrats going to cooperate with that, or put the debate on their own terms?