The battle looms. It is, in fact, right over a hill right in front of us. So, are Democrats girding their loins for the fight, and roaring their defiance at the opposition?
Um, well, not that I've noticed. Sigh. Instead, loins un-girded and roars muted to the level of squabbling jaybirds, Democrats are once again acting like Democrats.
The big fight this election season hasn't really dawned yet. And all the issues in the past will likely pale in comparison to the big fight that's just ahead of us. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (to his credit) set up this fight, right before the midterm election's homestretch. The big fight this year is going to be over extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest two percent of American workers, and to the top three percent of American small businesses. On the other side are, respectively, ninety-eight percent of American workers, and ninety-seven percent of American small businesses. Not bad odds, even for Democrats.
But the big unanswered question is whether Democrats can effectively use the issue to their advantage. Reid certainly must think so, otherwise he wouldn't have scheduled this fight for September. But, looking around, I see and hear a lot of Republicans laying the ground work for their side of the battle, and Democrats not doing the same in forceful response.
As I said... sigh.
This is indeed a battle worth fighting, and a battle worth winning. It cuts to the heart of the contradiction of the Tea Party's stances -- you simply cannot be for lowering the deficit and for unneeded tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires at the same time. You can choose one or the other, but not both. Because the numbers just don't add up. But we'll get to that in a minute.
For Democrats unsure of how to proceed, there were two articles of note this week, one explaining how the Democrats could go on the offense on the Bush tax cut issue, and one explaining how to go on defense against the Republican ideas for the federal budget. Both are excellent suggestions, and both should be required reading up on Capitol Hill.
The first of these articles is from Robert Reich, who is well known for making all kinds of sense on the economy. He suggests a tactic similar to one I actually proposed in the last book I wrote: to raise taxes on the rich while -- at the same time -- lowering them for everyone else. Reich's idea is a bit different from the one I came up with (which dealt with Social Security taxes), but his idea is brilliantly-timed, with the debate looming:
Republicans understand the art of tax demagoguery: Put the other side on the defensive by forcing them to explain why a "tax increase" is warranted and they lose regardless.
So instead of playing defense, Democrats should go on the attack.
Accuse Republicans of being shills for the rich.
And don't stop there. Do tax jujitsu. In addition to ending the Bush tax cut for the rich, put forward another proposal for growing the economy that cuts taxes on lower-income Americans.
Democrats should propose eliminating payroll taxes on the first $20,000 of income, and making up the revenue loss by applying payroll taxes to incomes above $250,000.
Read the entire article to see more details. This is the way to go on offense, Democrats. This is how you sell an idea to the public. This is how you get something good done -- and at the same time, paint the Republicans into a serious corner. Republicans voting against a tax cut for 97 percent, to hold firm on tax cuts for billionaires? The campaign ads just write themselves....
The second article shows how Democrats should be playing defense, and should be seen as a personal plea to Nancy Pelosi to force a vote on the Republican budget plan that has rightwing pundits all excited. Paul Abrams at The Huffington Post wrote an excellent battle plan for the House to follow, while the Senate is debating the Bush tax cuts. This plan consists of one brilliant idea: bring the "Ryan budget" to a vote.
Paul Ryan (R-WI) is the point person for House Republicans on the budget committee. He is considered to be a "rising star" in their ranks. He designed a budget proposal that he says would bring the nation's books into balance, without raising taxes, within 10 years. Contrary to Democrats' claims that Republicans have "no solutions", the Republicans will point to this budget proposal on the campaign trail as proof that they can do it -- this time. [Ryan's entire exercise, by the way, was to concoct a scheme so Republicans could preserve tax cuts for the wealthy -- that's their core value!].
Of course, they will not talk about the details of that proposal, such as privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program with vouchers that will increasingly not meet the costs of medical care for the elderly. Instead, they will just assert "we did it", fend off Democrats' attempts to point out its failings as political sniping, and win the November elections with Tea Party, traditional Republican and "Independent" support.
That is, if the Democrats continue to let them get away with it by not getting them to vote for it.
He goes on to suggest multi-day hearings on the bill, to attract the media spotlight, and then to finish off in style:
Then, bring the Ryan budget to a vote. If Republicans vote for the Ryan Budget, they will be voting to do what Republican paymasters like the Koch brothers have always wanted, but the electorate has never been sucked into supporting -- privatize Social Security, scale down Medicare until it is worthless. Remember Newt Gingrich's reverie, "Social Security and Medicare will be left to wither on the vine"? Democrats have shown in the past that they can run successfully against privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare.
If Republicans vote against the Ryan Budget, however, they will infuriate the Tea Party. Indeed, being infuriated is what the Tea Party is all about. They are very good at it.
This is basic politics. The "in" party always schedules votes in the months before a campaign to make the "out" party look bad. Ryan's budget is much-beloved by pundits, but not so much among actual Republicans (it only has a relative handful of cosponsors). Many Republicans know that being forced to vote on it means they either vote to, in essence, kill Medicare (which they were making quite a bit of noise over last year, positioning themselves quite laughably as the defenders of Medicare)... or they have to vote against a Republican plan to balance the budget. That's a tough vote for a Republican to make, which is why they would really prefer not to have the vote in the first place -- because it is so lose-lose for many of them.
But nothing is stopping Pelosi from forcing the vote.
Which is exactly what she should do.
If Democrats were playing hardball offense over in the Senate, and playing brilliant defense over in the House, then they could completely change the tenor of this year's election debate. Nothing is stopping them from doing so, except a lack of political backbone.
Or ungirded loins, perhaps.
We're bending the rules a little bit (as we are often wont to do around here) and stretching the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to include last Thursday. Call it a long week, if you will.
We're doing so in order to award this week's MIDOTW to none other than Senator Al Franken, for his speech on net neutrality and the First Amendment last Thursday in Minneapolis. It's a humdinger of a speech, so we heartily encourage anyone interested in the issue to either watch the video or read the full transcript of Franken's speech. Or, at the very least, read Timothy Karr's review of the speech which appeared in The Huffington Post (where it caught our eye, initially).
Senator Franken grew up in a world where there were limits to media monopolies. Any one person or corporation could only own a limited number of media outlets -- something like [I'm doing this from memory, so correct me if I'm wrong] owning only (at any one time): seven AM stations, seven FM stations, seven television stations, and seven newspapers. Clear Channel didn't exist in the radio world, in other words. Because it wasn't allowed to.
Franken understands this perhaps as no other member of Congress does (having spent a few years in a media career himself), and he has recently been forcefully speaking his mind -- both on the concept of net neutrality and also on the dangers of media monopolies and the potential harm from allowing companies like Verizon, Comcast, and Google to set the net's rules on their own. Or, as Franken put it in his speech: "...we don't just have a competition problem. We have a First Amendment problem."
Franken's speech was directed at the two members of the Federal Communications Commission who were in the room. So, not only for standing up for the concept of net neutrality, but for doing so to exactly the people who need to hear it, this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week is Senator Al Franken.
When contacted, Franken's office (before even being informed they'd won an award this week, as I didn't want to let the cat out of the proverbial bag) generously provided the following quote from Senator Franken:
"Today, a small Minnesota bookstore's website loads just as fast as Amazon.com. That's because right now Internet service providers don't discriminate between different kinds of content online. So if you have something to say or a product to sell, there is currently no limit to how influential or successful you can be. This is why I believe that net neutrality, and the preservation of a free and open Internet, is the First Amendment issue of our time."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves. Well done, Senator Franken.
[Congratulate Senator Al Franken on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
Picking a winner of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week was easy. Generally, this is not a good thing.
Specifically, what was said by ironically-named Representative Bobby Bright from the state of Alabama earned him the MDDOTW award, hands down. Congressman Bright this week stepped over a clear line, in an especially egregious fashion. There's a basic rule all politicians should follow all the time. This rule is: "Don't ever -- ever -- speak of the future death of another politician." It doesn't matter what the context. Pundits can speculate idly on "Well, if politician X were hit by a bus tomorrow," and average citizens may also indulge in this sort of thing, but once you take up the mantle of being a politician, you cannot ever say anything like this ever again -- at least not in public. This applies across the board -- whether the context is a sober hypothetical situation, making a joke, or taunting an opponent in a campaign. It even applies (perhaps even more so) to other politician's families. It applies to politicians of any party, too -- it's a universal rule.
What made Bright's comments so odious is that he wasn't talking about a Republican. Instead, this Blue Dog Democrat was making light of the Speaker of the House of his own party, Nancy Pelosi. Now, a Democrat trying to get re-elected in Alabama is certainly allowed a lot of slack in terms of distancing himself from Pelosi, who (I am just guessing here) may not be very popular among his constituents. But "distancing" is one thing. Speculating about her death, for a cheap laugh, is quite another.
The initial report was that Bright "joked that Pelosi might lose her own election, decide not to run for the speaker's job or otherwise not be available." Intrepid WashingtonPost.com blogger Greg Sargent called up the reporter in question, who provided the actual quote: "heck, she might even get sick and die."
No further commentary is necessary on Bright's disgraceful words. By unanimous consent, Bobby Bright is far and away the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.
Have you no shame, Congressman Bright?
[Contact Representative Bobby Bright on his House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 136 (8/27/10)
I ran an informal and completely unscientific poll this week (if you haven't seen it, feel free to post a comment, as I'm still tallying results), on the subject of: "Why is the Left disappointed with Obama?" Read the article to see what brought this on, and the (too long) list of answers to that question.
The top two answers, almost by an order of magnitude, were the following:
Far too much emphasis on bipartisanship; far too little emphasis on standing up for core Democratic values and using his bully pulpit to give voice to the Democratic narrative.
Being too quick to bargain away the strongest and best part of legislation.
This should serve as a blueprint for both the White House and the Democrats actually out there fighting for their political lives on the campaign trail. The Democratic base is upset because nobody seems to be using a megaphone to broadcast the Democratic narrative (which Robert Reich also wrote a good article about this week, I should mention); and nobody seems to be standing up for strong legislation in the face of watered-down do-nothing incrementalism.
Remember this when girding those loins, Democrats. Stand up for something, tell the people what you're standing up for, and then stand firm and defend it against those who would callously trade it away for votes that are never going to materialize.
This week, we're providing some armor for the fight. Democrats need to get a jump on the battle in Congress, and start laying the narrative groundwork for the Bush tax cuts battle. Luckily, the public is on their side, as recent polls show around six out of ten Americans think raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy is a dandy idea right about now. So start to make your case!
Billionaires' tax cuts
Robert Reich, in his tax cut article, makes this point crystal clear, so I'm just going to swipe his bullet point here. Democrats should start talking about the tax cuts using the following two terms: "millionaires' tax cuts," or, even better, "tax cuts for billionaires."
[E]xtending the Bush tax cut to the richest Americans would give them a $36 billion bonus next year. ($31 billion of this would go to billionaire households.) And that $36 billion would be added to the budget deficit.
Tax cuts for billionaires, or deficit reduction?
Which brings us straight to the second point.
"I'd like to ask my Republican colleague what his highest priority is: tax cuts for billionaires, or deficit reduction? Because you simply cannot have both at the same time. Just one year of Bush billionaire tax cuts would cost the Treasury $36 billion. Is it more important to send $31 billion of that to people who are already billionaires, or is it more important to do something about the deficit? Because, once again, you cannot do both at once. So which is it?"
Bank of China credit card
And let's not forget where that money's coming from.
"So you're arguing to put almost a trillion dollars over ten years onto the 'Bank of China credit card' so that rich folks don't have to pay the same tax rates they used to pay under Bill Clinton? Really? Is it really worth loading our children with a trillion extra dollars in debt, so that the ultra-rich need never sacrifice, when America is in the midst of two wars that Republicans refused to pay for and an economic crisis the last Republican president left us in? Because I don't think it's worth borrowing all that money from China to give billionaires a break on their taxes."
Clinton actually raised taxes
Don't let Republicans get away with their historical revisionism, either.
"Let's see, Bush lowered taxes, and we had a stagnant economic decade. But Clinton raised taxes at the beginning of his term -- and the Republican Party freaked out with all of the same dire warnings you're hearing today. 'It'll kill jobs, it'll kill the economy,' and all the rest of it. Go back to the early 1990s, and read what they were saying then. But, as I recall, the rest of the 1990s turned out pretty good, and Clinton left with a balanced budget. So I guess raising taxes doesn't destroy the economy after all, does it?"
It's not "either/or"
Another piece of Republican nonsense still occasionally rears its ugly head. Democrats need to reflexively stomp on this one, because it is so laughable.
"I'm sorry, but my Republican friend is talking about the Bush tax cuts as if we're going to have a vote on the entire package -- an 'either/or' vote, in other words. That's just simply false -- that's not the way Congress works. We can, quite easily, keep the president's promise not to raise income taxes on anyone making $250,000 a year, and still change the tax brackets for those above that line. That's what the committees are for, to examine things piece by piece. So I really wish the Republicans would talk some sense on this issue, instead of saying that all the Bush tax cuts have to be either extended or ended as a single package, because they don't. That's just not how it works, period."
Existing tax law
Republicans have come up with yet another nonsensical term in this debate which really needs nothing more than a loud laugh in their face whenever they attempt to use it. They've been saying something about how the Bush tax cuts are "existing tax law" and therefore doing anything is "making new tax law" as if it made some sort of difference -- even if it weren't false. Yet another gremlin for Democrats to stomp on.
"I'm sorry, did you say 'existing tax law' to describe making a new tax law to extend the Bush tax cuts? That's funny. No, really, that's amusing. Existing tax law -- tax law that Republicans passed through reconciliation, I hasted to point out -- is that all the Bush tax cuts fully expire next year. That is 'existing tax law,' and it is the law which Republicans passed, and never made permanent even when they had control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. You know why they never did make the tax cuts permanent? Because they were afraid of exploding the deficit. Now they're no longer afraid of adding a trillion dollars to our deficit, apparently. But let's be clear on this -- existing tax law which Republicans passed states that the Bush tax cuts become a pumpkin next year. That is why Democrats are going to fight to make new tax law extending middle class tax cuts, but at the same time refuse to hand more billions over to billionaires who aren't exactly hurting right now."
Business has lots of money right now
The Republican go-to argument in any tax-cuts-for-billionaires debate is nothing more than warmed-over "trickle down" from the Reagan days. It says that if we just allow rich folks not to pay so much in taxes, then rich folks will invest the money in business, which will create jobs. Except for an inconvenient truth.
"You say you want tax cuts for billionaires so they'll invest and provide money to businesses to hire people. But that ignores the fact that American business is right now sitting on a huge pile of money -- in the trillions of dollars -- and they still aren't hiring. Hiring is done when demand goes up, whether politicians want to admit it or not. And the best way to spur demand is to give all workers a break on payroll taxes -- up to the first $20,000 of income payroll-tax-free. This puts the money into consumers' pockets, and gives everyone a break on their tax load. This will spur the economy much more than boosting billionaires' bottom lines. And when people start spending this money, demand goes up and businesses will start to hire again to handle the increase."
-- Chris Weigant