Politicians often invoke the old chestnut that “budgets are a statement of values.” According to this perspective, the choices leaders make in terms of how to raise revenues and where to spend public funds should reflect a clear philosophical understanding of the relationship between individual opportunity, fairness, the role of government, public investment, economic growth and the social safety net.
Progressives are thus rightly grumbling over President Obama’s budget proposing benefit reductions for Social Security and Medicare recipients in the hopes of enticing recalcitrant Republicans to accept new tax revenues. Paul Krugman sees this budget not as a statement of progressive values but rather as a transparently political move to court favor of the “Serious People” who want to slash social insurance programs regardless of the wisdom of these cuts and their relationship to growth and deficits. Ezra Klein wonders what values lines are being crossed with a deal making approach that assumes $1.2 trillion in new tax revenues, well below President Obama’s stated desire in earlier talks with the GOP. “Obama’s third offer from December is, in this set of negotiations, his first offer. The question is what his final offer will be.”
From a political perspective, this budget framework is a bit of head-scratcher. What are the exact values that the President is trying to promote? Who exactly is President Obama trying to appeal to with this vision? Does the President really believe in the premises contained in the budget including social insurance reductions and further austerity? Why doesn’t the budget outline a vision for growth and investment consistent with his first term goals for “a new foundation” for the American economy rather than an ideologically incoherent attempt to find the elusive grand bargain?
Given the lack of explanation of what is driving these decisions, it seems unlikely that the President’s base will rally to support his budget. Cutting social insurance programs to placate Republicans does not reflect their values and directly affects their day-to-day lives in negative ways.
The better political approach — one that Obama has used to great effect in the past — would be to stand strong behind progressive values, even in the face of obstinate House Republicans. Ruy Teixeira and I wrote a paper for The American Prospect in early 2006 called “The Politics of Definition,” that still seems relevant today. The paper laid out a strategy for building a progressive majority during a time of opposition based on the central proposition that “Progressives need to fight for what they believe in — and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision — as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building.” It laid out a series of strategic guideposts for overcoming the debilitating problem that most Americans at the time did not understand at all what progressives and Democrats stood for in modern politics:
(1) The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: “What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?”
(2) Every political battle, both proactive and defensive, should represent a basic statement of progressive character and present a clear, concise contrast with conservatives. Do not blur lines.
(3) All issue campaigns and agenda items are not equal. Progressives should focus their efforts on issues that can simultaneously strengthen the base and appeal to centrist voters. Progressives must be willing to make sacrifices and tradeoffs — in terms of coalition building and budgetary concerns — to achieve their most important agenda items.
(4) Escalate battles that expose the extremism of the right or splinter their coalition. [Follow-up: When confronted with the right’s social, cultural, or national security agenda, the absolute worst response is to fail to combat these caricatures or to explain one’s position directly to voters, regardless of the popularity of the position.]
(5) Every political action should highlight three essential progressive attributes: a clear stand on the side of those who lack power, wealth or influence; a deep commitment to the common good; and a strong belief in fairness and opportunity for all.
Progressives should wait to see the full scale of the President’s budget and hear him out on his plans. The President still has time to make a strong case to skeptical liberals for why this budget reflects his core beliefs and values and how these values connect to specific policy decisions on social programs and taxation.
In the meantime, the President might want to take note of the obituaries of the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which frequently mention the Iron Lady’s no holds barred approach to politics: “I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician.”