Kent Conrad's Wild-Eyed Leftism

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North Dakota Democratic senator Kent Conrad isn't particularly liberal. He is only the 32nd most liberal member of the Senate, according to National Journal's vote rankings for the 111th Congress, and has a well-established reputation for social conservatism and deficit hawkery.

My colleague Bob Kuttner describes Conrad's prospective budget plan as "well to the right of where most Congressional Democrats stand on these issues." Which is true, in a context where the political system wasn't obsessed with deficit reduction amid slow economic growth, this would be a conservative. In the current environment, however, it's a different story. Conrad hasn't released the full details, but what he has released suggests that it will actually sit to the left of the recommendations on deficit reduction from the Simpson-Bowles commission and the White House's proposal.

Unlike every other deal on the table, Conrad's plan would cut $4 trillion from the deficit with a balance of 50-50 for spending cuts and revenue increases -- for every dollar in cuts, he expects a dollar in additional revenue. This was the basic template for the 1990 budget deal between President George H.W. Bush and congressional Democrats and represents an even political trade: We give you spending cuts, and you give us revenue.

By contrast, Simpson-Bowles would take three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in additional revenue. The White House proposal offers nearly five dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in new revenue. In the context of Republican counter-proposals, which demand nothing less than 100 percent spending cuts and revenue-neutral tax reform, this makes Conrad a wild-eyed leftist with a socialist budget.

If there's anything depressing about Conrad's plan, it's in what it signifies for the entire debate. When President Obama agreed to use the debt ceiling as a pretext for negotiation, he empowered a reckless Republican Party to push the debate to its right-most edge. Thanks to that decision, liberal ideas are a nonstarter, and center-right proposals like Kent Conrad's are all but dead on arrival.

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