Jan 1 2011

Democrats Failing Media’s Deficit Test

Embrace debt panel’s austerity to prove sincerity

Having concluded that the United States needs an austerity program to cure its economic ills (Extra!, 1/10), and having decided in advance that the 2010 midterms were a mandate for downsizing the federal government (Extra!, 12/10), the leading outlets of the corporate media fixed on the deficit commission created by Barack Obama as a test of how serious the Democrats were about doing what needed to be done. The initial verdict: They’re failing the test.

Before the midterms, under the headline “Deficit Divisions Likely to Grow After Election,” New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes (10/26/10) asserted that dealing with the “unsustainable combination of fast-growing entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and inadequate tax revenues” would be a major post-election challenge.

Never mind that Social Security is actually growing quite slowly and manageably (Extra!, 10/10), and that Medicare costs are rising unsustainably not because the program is growing but because medical inflation in general is out of control (Slate, 12/2/09; American Prospect, 10/11/10). Calmes, like other media opinion-makers, presented cutting back Social Security as a test of Democrats’ political courage:

Democrats are also split on fixing Social Security’s long-term solvency. Mr. Obama had wanted to tackle the issue early, and he created the debt commission by executive order—after Senate Republicans blocked legislation—partly in the hope that it would propose future benefit and payroll tax changes he could embrace. Some Democrats say he will have all the more reason to lead that charge after the elections, to signal a more centrist, fiscally conservative course. Yet liberal groups have already formed a big coalition to lobby against any such move.

Despite the commission’s clear entitlement-cutting agenda, opposition to it before it issued any recommendations was seen by media observers as a sure sign of bad faith. The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery (6/9/10), insisting that “budget experts say it would be difficult to significantly reduce future deficits without addressing the rising cost of Social Security,” criticized Social Security’s “defenders” for giving a “sinister cast” to the deficit commission by asserting it had “a secret plan to gut Social Security.” Such “heated rhetoric” was “threatening to rally the public against” benefit cuts—an “ominous sign” for the commission.

Meanwhile, Montgomery noted that commission members say that “adjusting Social Security benefits is a likely point of consensus.” By “adjusting,” she meant “cutting”—but pointing out this reality was somehow bad form.

Matt BaiThe New York Times’ Matt Bai (8/26/10) was even more dismissive of the liberals who were “mobilizing to discredit the panel’s work” and “pre-emptively oppose the panel’s findings.” Bai’s paraphrase of critics’ objections: “In other words, the two parties might actually work together on something. They must be stopped!”

The Washington Post’s David Broder (10/24/10), the “Dean of the D.C. Press Corps,” had a solution to this threat to bipartisanship: the partisan drubbing of one party by the other. Broder praised Britain’s coalition government, led by Conservative prime minister David Cameron, for “boldly” enacting a “painful” austerity agenda and “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery.” (He’s not exaggerating; economists—see Paul Krugman, New York Times, 10/22/10, or Dean Baker, Guardian, 10/25/10—indeed affirm that Britain’s plan to slash spending and raise taxes in the midst of a deep downturn is a recipe for economic disaster.)

Broder expressed hope that a Republican victory in November would allow a similar “breakthrough” to happen in the U.S.:

If Republicans emerge next month with sufficient leverage in the House and Senate to approach Obama with a proposition, they could insist that he “do a Cameron” when it comes to federal spending: a radical rollback now in the welfare state in return for a two-year truce on such policy questions as repeal of the healthcare law.

The vehicle could well be Obama’s strong endorsement of the December 1 report from his fiscal responsibility commission, which is expected to emphasize spending discipline over raising revenue. This would offer major gains to both parties, and set the stage for another experiment in the British model.

The hoped-for Republican victory came, and in its wake the co-chairs of the deficit commission—Erskine Bowles, representing the right flank of the Democratic Party, and right-wing Republican Alan Simpson—released their own personal recommendations for deficit-cutting (Talking Points Memo, 11/10/10). The New York Times’ Calmes (11/11/10) understood the implicit connection:

Mr. Obama created the commission last February in the hope it would provide political cover for bold action against deficits in 2011. His stance now, in the wake of his party’s drubbing, will go a long way toward telling whether he tacks to the political center—by embracing such proposals—or shifts to the left and leaves them on a shelf.

Though emblematic of the “political center” for the Times, the duo’s proposal is actually remarkably regressive, cutting Social Security benefits for a median-income retiree by 22 percent (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 11/16/10) while lowering effective tax rates for the wealthy below what they paid during the Clinton years. Economists like Krugman (New York Times, 11/12/10), Baker (New Republic, 11/11/10), James Galbraith (AlterNet, 9/10/10), Robert Kuttner (Huffington Post, 11/14/10), Robert Reich (Salon, 11/12/10) and Henry Aaron (Fiscal Times, 11/12/10) weighed in against the plan, describing it as slanted toward harsh spending cuts and unresponsive to the real problems of the economy.

But the response from those hired by establishment media to provide political analysis was overwhelmingly positive. If we fail to heed the deficit commission, Time’s Fareed Zakaria (11/18/10) wrote, “Historians may well look back and say this was the point at which the U.S. began its long and seemingly irreversible decline.”

Broder (Washington Post, 11/14/10) didn’t think it would come to that: “I expect weeks and even months of protest and gnashing of teeth. But unlike others, I think that in the end reality will force accommodations and that when it does, there will be genuine reason for celebration.” That reason, he explained, would be a British-style “austerity budget” heralding a “new day of sobriety.”

Democrats were criticized for being insufficiently celebratory at this prospect. “Media coverage sometimes made it sound as if Bowles and Simpson were taking the same amount of fire from left and right,” wrote New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (11/15/10). “But the reaction from Republican lawmakers and the conservative intelligentsia was muted, respectful and often favorable…. The liberal attacks, on the other hand, came fast and furious, from pundits and leading Democratic politicians alike.”

His colleague David Brooks (11/12/10) concurred: “Nancy Pelosi, the public sector unions and many liberal commentators are not only unwilling to compromise to prevent a catastrophe, they’re unwilling to even consider a compromise.”

For the most prominent Democrat, though, the media jury was still pointedly out: “The questions are whether Obama is willing to stand up to Pelosi and whether he can weather the consequences of triangulating against the liberals,” wrote the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank (11/14/10). “So far, so good.”