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Backbone, Please

If anything is more overrated than bipartisanship, it is post-partisanship. The Republicans surely get this. They dig in their heels, don't budge, and wait for the Democrats either to fail, or to come to them.

But the media are infatuated with the idea that excessive partisanship is a symmetrical problem. If only the Republicans and the Democrats would meet each other halfway, the nation's ills would be solved. It is hard to watch the Sunday talk shows without seeing one interviewer after another demanding, why can't you people just compromise?

There are two problems with this formulation, one tactical and the other substantive. The tactical problem is that the Republicans and Democrats aren't playing the same game. So if the Democrats meet the Republicans half way, the Republicans only demand that they do it again. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is identified as media enemy number one because she rejects this nonsense.

The tactical asymmetry connects to the substantive problem -- the fact that the solution to what ails the economy is somewhere to the left of most Democrats, not midway between, say, President Obama and Mitch McConnell. The economy will be fixed only with more public investment, more progressive taxation, and more regulation, but partisan compromise dictates less of each.

Our President, unfortunately, has played right into this trap, with creations such as the bipartisan panel on fiscal reform and responsibility, which will very likely come out with a plan to narrow the federal deficit by slashing what's left of public investment. The whole tilt of this commission is somewhere between conservative Democrat and far-right Republican.

Obama started out as a wishful post-partisan. His post-partisanship, in the face of Republican obstructionism, handed the mid-term election to his enemies. Now he is still trying to be post-partisan, but in even worse terrain.

On Wednesday, the commission will either issue some kind of report, or will be hamstrung by divisions. President Obama's order creating the commission required a supermajority of 14 out of its 18 members for its recommendations to be official.

At this writing, its three legislative progressive members are dead set against a budget plan that cuts Social Security or places deficit-reduction ahead of economic recovery. One of these, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, issued her own alternative plan, which increases social investment in the short run in order to get a stronger recovery going, then reduces the deficit over time with higher growth, progressive taxation and cuts in military spending.

Two others, Senator Dick Durban and Rep. Xavier Becerra, are disinclined to support the proposed plan. One other progressive on the commission, former SEIU president Andy Stern, has held out hopes of a grand bargain but no bargain that might appeal to Stern seems to be forthcoming. One other member, conservative Democrat Senator Max Baucus might be friendly to the deficit-hawk mentality, but is opposed to a fast-track formula of mandatory budget targets that might impinge on his prerogatives as Senate Finance Committee chairman. So the best we can hope for is that the commission will fall of its own weight.

To get a sense of what the Commission's two chairmen, Wall Street Democrat Erskine Bowles and wacko Republican Alan Simpson, would like to do, consider the proposal that they have been circulating. This would begin cutting the deficit in just 10 months, whether or not the economy is in recovery. The plan would gratuitously cut Social Security benefits, not raise taxes on the wealthy, and use spending cuts for about two-thirds of the proposed deficit reduction.

For an antidote to this economically insane medicine, have a look at the counterproposal written by three progressive think tanks, which proposes recovery first. A similar manifesto, by the Citizens Budget Commission, has just been released as an explicit alternative to the official commission's expected report. (Disclosure: I am involved with both efforts.)

The latest incarnation of the bipartisan delusion is an organization calling itself "No Labels." This is not an anti-designer consumer protest, but a political organization advertising the conceit that there is something virtuous per se about being post-partisan, never mind the content.

No Labels, according to the Wall Street Journal,

has raised more than $1 million to seed its effort against what it calls "hyper-partisanship." Backers include co-chairman of Loews Corp. Andrew Tisch, Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich and ex-Facebook executive Dave Morin. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as U.S. senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, will attend the New York launch.

The group's goal is to start a centrist equivalent to the tea-party movement on the right and MoveOn on the left. It sees an opportunity based on the defeat of liberal Republicans in recent years and the heavy losses taken by conservative Democrats in 2010.

'I've never seen such a wide opening for a third force in American politics,' says William Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow and No Labels adviser.

Spare me! Is Joe Lieberman, one of the great hacks of American politics, anybody's idea of a fresh thinker?

Come to think of it, what exactly is Galston's "third force" a third way between?

The original Third Way, Sweden, was advertised as somewhere between communism and capitalism. More recent third-way organizations, like the Democratic Leadership Council, have positioned themselves midway between Democratic liberals and business conservatives. As the presidential Democratic Party keeps moving right-of-center, the third way people now position themselves in between neutered Democrats and far-right resurgent Republicans.

You can see where this leads. But it sure is popular with financiers and the elite press.

What are Debbie Stabenow and Antonio Villaraigosa, of all people, doing associating themselves with this crowd? Didn't partisan Democrats and the labor movement work their tails off to get these people elected?

One of the two organizers of the effort is Nancy Jacobson, a big-time Democratic fund-raiser who is married to strategist Mark Penn, the pollster who invariably advises Democrats to move to the right. You can guess who will get the contract if this outfit takes off.

According to several reports, the fantasy of this group is that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would agree to run as a centrist independent in 2012.

Perfect. Bloomberg, a gazillionare and media mogul from Wall Street, would bring us no reform of financial excess, belt tightening for ordinary people, and the kind of privatizing of public services that has endeared him to Manhattan's economic elite.

Oh, and he's a social liberal. The media will love it. And the donors -- well, Bloomberg is so rich he doesn't need donors.

So the next phase of American politics will be Republican faux-populist loonies versus fat-cat post-partisans.

I keep thinking of Yeats. "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." A real progressive, with courage and convictions, could expose these people as false messiahs.


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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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