WASHINGTON - “Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time,” said Harry Truman.
If the thirty-third president was right, then Barack Obama just did himself and his party a world of hurt.
Faced with the threat that Tea Party–pressured Republicans in the House really would steer the United States toward default, and in so doing steer the US economy over the cliff, Obama had to do something. But instead of bold action—borrowing a page from Ronald Reagan to demand a straight up-or-down vote on raising the debt ceiling; borrowing a page from Franklin Roosevelt to pledge to use the authority afforded him by the Constitution to defend the full faith and credit of the United States—the president engaged in inside-the-Beltway bargaining of the most dysfunctional sort.
In cutting a deal with Congressional Republicans that places Democratic legacy programs—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—at risk while cutting essential programs for working families and the poor, Obama has positioned himself and his administration to the right of where mainstream Republicans such as Howard Baker, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush used to stand in fights with the fringe elements of their party.
Now, the fringe is in charge of the GOP. And Obama is cutting deals to satisfy Republicans that Britain’s banking minister describes as “right-wing nutters.’”
Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders are claiming that they have done everything in their power to avert deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And it is true that they have given the Republicans (and their paymasters) less than House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan was demanding with a budget proposal that turned Medicare into a voucher program and began the process of privatizing Social Security.
But a compromise with total destruction can still do a lot of damage.
The president’s bow to the political extremism—and the economic irrationality—of a tiny circle of “right-wing nutters” in Congress and their dwindling Tea Party “base” will, according to reports based on briefings by White House and GOP aides, “raise the debt limit by about $2.7 trillion and reduce the deficit by the same amount in two steps. It would cut about $1 trillion in spending up front and set up a select bicameral committee to put together a future deficit-reduction package worth $1.7 trillion to $1.8 trillion. Failure of Congress to pass the future deficit-reduction package would automatically trigger cuts to defense spending and Medicare.”
An aide familiar with the deal the Hill newspaper that the Medicare cut would not affect beneficiaries. “Instead,” the aide indicated, “healthcare providers and insurance companies would see lower payments.”
But that’s still a squeezing of Medicare in order to meet the demands of Congressional Republicans who have spent the past six months trying to put the program on the chopping block.
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, responded to initial reports regarding the deal by describing it as “a sugar-coated Satan sandwich.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva says Obama and his negotiators have bent too far to the extremists. Like many progressives, Grijalva favored the straight up-or-down vote on debt ceiling. “Had that vote failed,” he argued, “the president should have exercised his Fourteenth Amendment responsibilities and ended this manufactured crisis.”
Grijalva is expected to join members of the Congerssional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucusat a Monday press conference, where they will call on Obama to sidestep Congress and raise the debt limit by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment.
Obama has, so far, rejected this option.
Instead of taking a tough stance, the president has blinked in the face of Republican recalcitrance. And in so doing Obama agreed to what the Progressive Caucus co-chair decsribed as “a cure as bad as the disease.”
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“This deal trades people’s livelihoods for the votes of a few unappeasable right-wing radicals, and I will not support it,” Grijalva declared Sunday afternoon. “Progressives have been organizing for months to oppose any scheme that cuts Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and it now seems clear that even these bedrock pillars of the American success story are on the chopping block. Even if this deal were not as bad as it is, this would be enough for me to fight against its passage.”
How widespread that sentiment will be within the House Democratic Caucus remains to be seen. While Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has signed on with the president, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, says she must meet with caucus members before taking a position.
Grijalva is far from the only member who is upset with the deal.
“Nada from million/billionaires; corp tax loopholes aplenty; only sacrifice from the poor/middle class? Shared sacrifice, balance? Really?” she complained, via Twitter, on Sunday.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, complained that she was “not sure how Social Security and Medicare” will be preserved by the bargain the president has cut with the Republicans. “We have to make sure that within this deal…Medicare and Medicare and Social Security and the most vulnerable are protected,” she said, while withholding an endorsement of the measure. “I worry about these triggers [for more cuts],” Lee concluded.
Grijalva objected, in particular, to the lack of shared sacrifice in the deal.
“This deal does not even attempt to strike a balance between more cuts for the working people of America and a fairer contribution from millionaires and corporations. The very wealthy will continue to receive taxpayer handouts, and corporations will keep their expensive federal giveaways. Meanwhile, millions of families unfairly lose more in this deal than they have already lost. I will not be a part of it,” the Arizona congressman explained. “Republicans have succeeded in imposing their vision of a country without real economic hope. Their message has no public appeal, and Democrats have had every opportunity to stand firm in the face of their irrational demands. Progressives have been rallying support for the successful government programs that have meant health and economic security to generations of our people. Today we, and everyone we have worked to speak for and fight for, were thrown under the bus. We have made our bottom line clear for months: a final deal must strike a balance between cuts and revenue, and must not put all the burden on the working people of this country. This deal fails those tests and many more.”
But Grijalva’s gripe was not merely a moral or economic one.
It was political, as well.
“The Democratic Party, no less than the Republican Party, is at a very serious crossroads at this moment. For decades Democrats have stood for a capable, meaningful government—a government that works for the people, not just the powerful, and that represents everyone fairly and equally. This deal weakens the Democratic Party as badly as it weakens the country,” explained Grijalva. “We have given much and received nothing in return. The lesson today is that Republicans can hold their breath long enough to get what they want. While I believe the country will not reward them for this in the long run, the damage has already been done.”
The question that remains is: How much damage? How much damage to vulnerable Americans? How much damage to the global reputation of the United States as a functional state? How much damage to a US economy that is threatened by rising unemployment? How much damage to the image of the Democratic Party as a defender of working families?
There will still be a good deal of wrangling over this deal. It could be rejected. It could be altered. But it cannot be defended as a sound or necessary response to a manufactured debt-ceiling debate and the mess that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has made of it.
That is why the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus says: “I will not support the emerging debt deal.”
“I will have no part of a deal that cuts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to appease the farthest reaches of the right wing of the Republican Party,” argues Grijalva. “It is unconscionable to put these programs on the chopping block and ignore the voices and beliefs of the millions of Americans who trust us to lead while continuing to give handouts to the ultra wealthy and the largest corporations. There is no human decency in that.”