Thursday, December 2, 2010

Alleged Democratic Missteps

I've had this in the docket for awhile now. Liberals criticism of democratic strategy towards the tax cuts have been a bit over the top. Via Ezra Klein, he laments how democrat's have squandered a favorable situation:

Democrats, it seemed, had won this one. They had the popular position, the president's veto pen and control of the Congress. But they simply refused to carry the ball over the goal line. Instead, they began negotiating with themselves, talking about millionaires' brackets and short-term extensions. Republicans noticed the Democrats' disarray and lost their fatalism: "Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on Bloomberg Television he was ready to instruct GOP members to vote down legislation Democrats plan to bring to the floor that would extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts only for the middle class."

Now it looks like all the tax cuts will be extended, at least for the moment. But it's a baffling outcome. The structure of the situation favored -- and continues to favor -- the Democrats. No tax cuts pass without their support, and Republicans have previously admitted that their position isn't popular enough to prevail in a standoff. The only thing that's changed is that Republicans have realized Democrats aren't confident enough to enter a standoff. But it didn't have to be this way. Think back to early this week, when the president announced the federal pay freeze. "The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require broad sacrifice," he said. "And that sacrifice must be shared by the employees of the federal government." Here's what he could've said next:

It also must be shared by those among us who've prospered most in recent years. Even before the financial crisis, middle-class incomes had stagnated. But the incomes of the wealthiest Americans hadn't. Similarly, America's upper class has recovered from the crisis much quicker than the working class. There's nothing wrong with that: The country depends on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its most successful citizens. But in a time of high deficits and belt tightening, it makes $700 billion in tax cuts that go solely to the top 2% an unreasonable expense. Those tax cuts were passed in a time of surplus, and now we're in a time of deficits. As our situation changes, so must our policy. I will veto any bill that extends those tax breaks.

Though, I frequently agree with Mr. Klein, this seems a bit off the mark. Let's envision a world where the tax cuts expire. Would the public sift through the situation and understand that the GOP used its minority status to throw up procedural hurdles on behalf of the richest few? Or, would they make the easier calculation that democrats were in charge while taxes increased, and democrats are too blame? Hm, let's quote Jon Chait to help me answer this question:

In fact, another analysis of over 40 years of presidential elections, this one by political scientists Richard Nadeau and Michael Lewis-Beck, found the same thing. Voters rewarded the president's party when times were good and punished it when times were bad -- no matter whether government was unified or divided. Nadeau and Lewis-Beck write:

The presidential office is viewed as the command post of the economy, irrespective of whether the president actually has sufficient control of Congress to implement his or her economic plan.

No matter the Congressional make-up, the public puts the President in the driver's seat of the economy. With the high-profile, nearly aristocratic status we assign to the President, this makes sense. Recall any election season. There are rarely thousands of people rallying for individual congress persons, but they are a frequent occurrence for our Presidential nominees. Add onto to that how meta-narratives of presidential elections are repeated and amplified through our media institutions and you get a very high-profile, almost deified, figure. And when things go poorly, the false gods are the first ones to go. All I'm saying is in a world where people still blame the stimulus, and subsequently the President, for our economic woes, I don't understand how the tax fight would've been any different.

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