Tough Choices

Over at the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a mostly excellent take on the Wisconsin recall and what it means for American politics. The short story is that economic distress will result in a zero-sum politics, where both sides vie for the greatest gains while doing as much as possible to block their opponents. He exaggerates the extent to which this is true on the Democratic side—Democrats haven’t pushed laws to keep Republicans from voting, nor have they used legislation to attack core GOP constituencies—but the point is well taken. Politics has become hyper-partisan and totalistic, and while Douthat doesn’t say it, you can trace this to the Republican Party’s utter disregard for institutional norms (see: the filibuster).

The problem with Douthat’s argument comes at the end, where—in a bold bit of projection—he praises Republican innovation and accuses the Democratic Party of policy nihilism:

The House Republicans have spent the past two years taking tough votes on entitlement reform, preparing themselves for an ambitious offensive should 2012 deliver the opportunity to cast those same votes and have them count. The Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have failed to even pass a budget: There is no Democratic equivalent of Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprint, no Democratic plan to swallow hard and raise middle class taxes the way Republicans look poised to swallow hard and overhaul Medicare. Indeed, there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment, beyond a resounding “No!” to whatever conservatism intends to do. [Emphasis mine]

I’m not sure how to read this; it’s more than clear—from the 111th Congress—that the Democratic Party has a clear and ambitious program for the United States. From 2009 to 2010, Democrats signed several major initiatives into law: a large infusion of short-term stimulus spending, a bill to reform the financial industry and prevent a recurrence of the Great Recession, and a massive bill that—among other things—bolsters Medicaid, reduces Medicare spending, ensures universal health coverage, sets the stage for a private insurance market, funds a variety of cost-control measures, and attempts to put the United States on a long-term fiscal footing.

This is incredibly ambitious—Douthat says as much earlier in the post—and more importantly, ongoing: under four more years of an Obama administration, Democrats will work to implement these policies. In addition, they still hope to sign laws on climate change—building upon the cap and trade legislation passed in 2009—immigration reform, and tax reform. It’s simply ridiculous for Douthat to say that “there’s no liberal agenda to speak of at the moment,” especially when Republicans devoted themselves to constant obstruction throughout the 111th Congress.

In fact, the only thing less convincing than that declaration is the claim that Republicans have “swallowed hard” with Medicare reform and offered something unique with the Ryan blueprint. A privatized Medicare system has been a conservative goal for decades; it’s hard to call something a tough choice when it’s exactly what you want. Likewise, as many analysts have noted over the last year, the Ryan budget is not a plan for fiscal stability; it calls for Congress to raise military spending, slash income taxes, eliminate the capital gains tax, and end the estate tax. To pay for this, it offers cuts to existing social services, including Medicaid. In other words, it’s a conservative wish list, not a tough choice.

Indeed, I don’t understand how you can talk about difficult decisions in politics without mentioning the Affordable Care Act. In passing Obamacare, Democrats enraged their liberal base (by dropping a public option), energized conservatives, and alienated independents. Obama took a costly hit to his political capital, and Republicans won a historic victory in the House of Representatives.

Douthat is right to say that Democrats have avoided tough decisions, particularly on taxes. There’s no way to sustain Democratic commitments without higher middle-class taxes, and Democrats need to admit as much. Still, when looking over the past three years, one thing is clear: Republicans say they want to make tough choices, but Democrats have actually made tough choices. It’s misleading for Douthat to assert otherwise.