Disappointment

Saddled with an opposition that relentlessly avoids the appearance or actuality of substance, and which tries at every turn to push the country farther right than their thin mandate should support, even at the expense of the country’s fiscal integrity, this President has somehow continued to speak in substantive, positive, centrist terms.

After the hard-right tilt of the Bush years, and corresponding translation of all debates into culture war terms, that even-temperedness is at least a little of what I signed up for: a President for the country, not for an outspoken and increasingly violent political faction. Even where the price is, essentially, the loss of political effectiveness, it’s a little nice to occupy the high ground. So the following comes as a surprise:

Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background, a strategy grounded in the early-stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee. [. . .]

A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.

“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” said the adviser, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”

And a serious disappointment. If the Republican succeed at bringing Obama down to their level — where personal attacks and clever catchphrases substitute for leadership — they will have finally, and actually won. Centrism and statesmanship will be dead and buried, by both sides. And we’ll have nothing to show for that great loss, while the Republicans will have engineered a country convinced that “liberty” means nothing more than tax cuts and “freedom” from the social safety net.

If nothing else, though, this strategy leak signals a tone change, an awareness that the President’s current messaging strategy isn’t working. That’s good. But instead of embracing the lowest common denominator, the Administration should consider what’s actually working, what isn’t, and most importantly, what they actually have to lose. For example, the most frustrating element of the past three years has been the GOP’s remarkable ability to pin positions on the White House more extreme than those it actually advocates. By playing the centrist game in response, we get the worst of all worlds, suffering undeserved blows from the right, deserved blows from the left, and bewildered indifference from the center.

Well, “if we’re going to be walking into walls, I want us running into them.”

It’s long-past time the President attempted even-tempered and intellectual solutions to the world’s problems, and delivered them in a strident, confident tone, backed by the courage of our convictions. This IS the “tea party downgrade,” and it threatens to be the tea party double-recession — not because of Boehner’s caucus and its reckless disregard for the consequences of fiscal zealotry. But because we’ve allowed the right to define the terms of the debate for the better part of a half-century, on the mistaken premise that modern tax policy is some liberal lie at odds with a history of “freedom.” This while simultaneously giving a pass to the real enemy — supply-side economics — a disproven aberration that’s left the rich less taxed than ever in American history, shifted the burden to the middle, and left us too poor to fix the current crisis, itself a product of runaway deregulation. The last time so many Americans were out of a job, we put them to work reinventing the country. We electrified the Tennessee River Valley, rebuilt the interstate, and poured manpower into science and industry, to the point that we could fight (and win) the greatest war in human history. Instead, today, we view investing in ourselves as some sort of sin — and let Republicans use a deficit they built to somehow excuse themselves from their responsibility to fix the damn thing. Why?

President Obama should ask that question, rather than indulging in the kind of namecalling expected of our honorable friends opposite. The Republicans have left us to play the part of the prodigal son, coasting off our fathers’ victories. We need a paradigm shift: life will be hard again, but we can win through it if we give up the myths that’ve allowed the rich to get richer on the nation’s dime, and the preoccupations that’ve convinced some that it’s more important to worry about their God than our country.

If Obama won’t even try to accomplish that shift — but instead buys into the type of politics that have abetted this decline all along — then he truly does not deserve his second term. Although I suppose the Republicans will deserve it even less.

Let it never be said that I am unequal in criticism.

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41 comments

  1. Let it never be said that I am unequal in criticism.

    I’ll say it. This is the most back-handed post I have read in a long time. Basically the whole theme is that Republicans are terrible and if Obama becomes Republican-like he will be terrible too..but still not as terrible as them.

    *sigh*

    Right now Ames it appears you are more a part of the problem, not the solution. Maybe when you have another decade under your belt like myself and Phillip you will be as jaded as we are… or you will be in office and playing the same game.

    President Obama should ask that question, rather than indulging in the kind of namecalling expected of our honorable friends opposite. The Republicans have left us to play the part of the prodigal son, coasting off our fathers’ victories. We need a paradigm shift: life will be hard again, but we can win through it if we give up the myths that’ve allowed the rich to get richer on the nation’s dime, and the preoccupations that’ve convinced some that it’s more important to worry about their God than our country.

    “We need a paradigm shift: life will be hard again, but we can win through it…”

    Maybe this is your opportunity to try out a stump speech. I’m curious what exactly you would propose that would make life hard for anyone?

  2. Er – that comment was butchered. It should read like this:

    Let it never be said that I am unequal in criticism.

    I’ll say it. This is the most back-handed post I have read in a long time. Basically the whole theme is that Republicans are terrible and if Obama becomes Republican-like he will be terrible too..but still not as terrible as them.

    *sigh*

    Right now Ames it appears you are more a part of the problem, not the solution. Maybe when you have another decade under your belt like myself and Phillip you will be as jaded as we are… or you will be in office and playing the same game.

    “We need a paradigm shift: life will be hard again, but we can win through it…”

    Maybe this is your opportunity to try out a stump speech. I’m curious what exactly you would propose that would make life hard for anyone?

  3. You summed up the theme accurately! I don’t, however, view cynicism as something that should look forward to, nor do I think it means I’m wrong here.

    Oh, and not whining about tax increases would be a lovely start.

    1. Measured cynicism is a gift. It enables you to stop seeing one side as better than the other. It helps you to stop thinking of politics as a team sport. It keeps you from writing partisan hackery instead of actually doing something.

      I think you are going to have to do better than that Ames. You’ve always been long on reasons why the Right is bad but short on reasons why the Left is good. So other than saying tax increases are good, let’s hear some specifics. Tax increases on who? And will those get us back in the black? Why kind of infrastructure projects should we undertake in this new 21st century TVA?

      1. Tax increases on who?

        Primarily upper middle to high-income earners. Because they tend to spend less and save more of their income, that will have the least negative impact on aggregate demand.

        And will those get us back in the black?

        Not alone, but neither will cuts.

        Why kind of infrastructure projects should we undertake in this new 21st century TVA?

        High speed rail? Renewable energy? Or if that’s too advanced, I understand the US will have to spend some $250 billion over the next 20 years on replacing aging water infrastructure, so maybe you could get started on that?

        1. High speed rail is money pit. And I’d like to know the income level that counts as ‘upper middle class’ and why the middle and lower middle classes don’t need a hike. Also, you don’t mention loopholes at all which would account for billions?

          “Not alone, but neither will cuts.”

          Yeah – i get that which is why I’m on record here about a dozen times as supporting tax hikes IF spending is cut first. After awhile though this becomes a game of chicken to see which side will blink first.

          1. High speed rail is money pit.

            Tell that to Amtrak. Half of their annual profits come from the single HSR line between DC and Boston.

            why the middle and lower middle classes don’t need a hike.

            Because that would hurt aggregate demand and thus the economic recovery.

            supporting tax hikes IF spending is cut first.

            And it’s exactly those kind of, no disrespect, childish games that leave everyone else baffled. I mean, what’s the point? Just go ahead and do something before everyone on the planet goes broke, for God’s sake.

            1. If Amtrak makes a profit that is news to me. My understanding is that they have been operating at a loss since 1953.

              Cutting spending IS doing something. But as I have said many times, you can’t give more money to the fed until you know it won’t lead to new spending. Has anyone in Congress shown a willingness to really tackle spending (i.e. entitlements and defense)?

              1. Sorry, I meant half of Amtrak’s revenues, they do operate a loss – but the high-speed line is (I think) more or less the only line to actually turn a profit.

                …you can’t give more money to the fed until you know it won’t lead to new spending.

                Well, if everyone is just sitting around saying, “you have to do what we want before we’ll do what you want”, nothing will get done ever. There’s this word called ‘compromise’, after all.

                Has anyone in Congress shown a willingness to really tackle spending (i.e. entitlements and defense)?

                As far as I can tell, hardly anyone in Congress have shown much willingness to do anything at all.

                1. “Well, if everyone is just sitting around saying, “you have to do what we want before we’ll do what you want”, nothing will get done ever. There’s this word called ‘compromise’, after all.

                  As far as I can tell, hardly anyone in Congress have shown much willingness to do anything at all.”

                  Well, as I said, my preference is to cut spending to the bone first as a psychological exercise. But I would also certainly support a proposal to seriously cut spending AND raise taxes on everyone making above $15,000 per year simultaneously.

                  1. $15,000 sounds extremely low. The problem is the less people earn, the greater the proportion they spend on actual consumption, which is what drives growth in the first instance. High-income earners, on the other hand, tend to save or invest more of their income, which doesn’t really help as much. So if you have a fragile economic recovery as we’re in right now, its simply safer to tax the latter more.

              2. Mike,
                Amtrak can’t have operated at a loss since ’53 because they were created by Congress on May 1, 1971 (which, FWIW, I think is a very auspicious day to be born). In addition, the operations in the North East Corridor have always been “profitable” in that it costs Amtrak less to run its trains and maintain the track there then Amtrak takes in in ticket sales. The NEC is the only place in America where Amtrak owns the tracks it runs on; elsewhere it has to lease track time from the freight railroads. it also has a woefully underfunded maintenance and capitol improvement budget, which is why passenger cars from the 1970’s labor on in its Heritage fleet.

                As to the rest of your points – no, no one in Congress has shown any willingness to curb spending ON EITHER SIDE OF THE AISLE. Unfortunately for you, most of the growth in defense and entitlement spending in the last two decades has come from Republican presidents (Medicare part D, anyone) and from the aging of the babyboom generation for which we are woefully unprepared economically.

                1. I think 1953 represented the time at which passenger rail become un-profitable, not Amtrak specifically (my bad – I know you are the train expert around here).

                  I’m not opposed to high-speed rail on principle. I would love to be able to zoom up to Chicago for the afternoon and be home for dinner. I have family that use the line between DC and NYC and they love it. My problem is two things: 1) I’m not convinced it can compete with the one-two punch of planes and autos and 2) It takes focus off of the need to improve our heavy freight lines which is much more crucial to the longterm economic success of the country.

                  I’m a fan of infrastructure projects and I’ve written a lot about my admiration for the WPA and associated agencies. I just think we have to think about the necessities before we look at sexy but questionable ideas like high-speed rail.

                  1. 1) I’m not convinced it can compete with the one-two punch of planes and autos

                    The two great attractions of high-speed rail are that it takes you directly from city centre to city centre, whereas airports are usually located outside the cities, usually adding extra transport time; and there’s much less hassle involved with check-in and security and such. The French TGV, the Eurostar from London to the Continent, and the new Spanish line between Madrid and Barcelona have all been extremely successful.

                    1. Personally I think they could give planes a run for their money due to the comfort factor but Americans’ love of autos is hard to overcome.

                      We would also need a more developed public transportation network in destination cities.

                    2. Which was allocated in the stimulus fund, but stonewalled, declined, or blocked by the GOP. And remember, intracity public transit is best accomplished by governments not private industry. Private construction is the reason NYC’s subways are so damn confusing, and have those maddeningly weird tunnels.

                    3. Perhaps there would have been funds for that if there had been less funds allocated to unnecessary projects:

                      http://www.foxnews.com/projects/pdf/8_3_10_Stimulus_III_Report.pdf

                2. Mike, heavy freight rail line improvements are subject to . . . gasp . . . . market forces since the right of way is owned by the railroads themselves. I agree that we have too little capacity, but instead of looking for a federal solution, go ask CSX or UP why they aren’t upgrading to meet demand.

                  1. Right – but infrastructure spending would subsidize efforts to improve right-of-ways, untangle shipping yards, etc.

        1. As usual Ames – you are short on specifics. Or does your planned run for office preclude you actually giving a detailed description of what YOU think the government should do?

        2. I mean no. We had a whole thing going on in the other thread about budget simulators, have a look!

          1. Not sure which thread you are talking about?

              1. Ah. Somehow missed the updates on that comment thread. Ames’ proposal is a little too ‘attack the rich’ for my tastes. Here’s my proposal

  4. You can fairly pin the downgrade on FDR, LBJ, Jesus Christ, and maybe Richard Nixon. I’ll even give you Bush and Reagan.

    But the Tea Party? The downgrade’s decades overdue because it was caused by fundamental structural flaws in America that are decades old. No matter how wrong-headed it is – and I grant you the Tea Partiers are pretty much idiots (but then, 90% of everyone is crap) – a movement younger than my computer can’t be responsible for something that old.

    1. The gridlock in Congress was a major contributing factor in the downgrade, and that is most definitely attributable to the Tea Party, although by no means to them alone.

      1. This is what the S&P actually said:

        ““Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-​term fiscal sustainability.”

        You will notice that they mention discretionary spending AND Medicare as two legs of the three-legged stool. I’ll be happy to accept blame on behalf of the Right for the revenue part but the other two fall on the Left. President Obama specifically stated that Medicare would not be touched on his watch. Discretionary spending was blwon up under the Pelosi-drafted Stimulus Bill.

        My point? We’re all in this together.

        1. That’s why I said, “by no means to them alone.”

        2. True, Democrats won’t touch Medicare at the moment, but the largest increase in medicare spending in the last two decades came from the Republican authored, and unfunded, prescription drug benefit rolled out early in the Bush Administration. So your Party of Record is really on the hook for 1.5 of the legs. And its the stubborn refusal of Republicans to admit to such spending binges that roils Democrats like me. You gotta own your failings if you are going to make us believe you have the better plan for fixing them, and so far you, Mike, are one of only two Republicans I personally know who can or will do that.

          1. I think plenty of conservatives were critical about the prescription drug benefit when it was rolled out. I still don’t really understand the reason it was done – though my theory is that it was meant to offset disapproval from seniors over the plans to overhaul Social Security. If that was the intent, then it was probably still unwise but I guess I can see the logic behind it.

            1. From all acounts, that was EXACTLY the intent. Sadly, it had one of those unintended consequences you always – and rightly – warn us about.

              1. David Brooks said it best, “Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it.”

      2. That’s fine. But Obama’s moved further than your guys have, which is to say, more than not at all. It was him that put the discretionary spending freeze on the table a year ago. What’s remarkable is that similar readiness to compromise hasn’t been forthcoming from the right. If that’s over… cool.

        1. “But Obama’s moved further than your guys have…”

          So now you’re bragging about incrementalism?

          1. Sadly enough, even incrementalism is something to brag about these days, by comparison.

            1. If that is the case then my cynicism is well-founded.

    1. “But in corporate America, there are usually a fair number of people who care a whole lot if your project costs too much, or doesn’t work, because if it all blows up, their jobs and salaries will be put at serious risk.

      Not counting certain parts of the banking and finance sector…

  5. This says more to me about budget-by-initiative than it says about budget-by-government-process, or the expense of hsr projects generally.

    1. Working in the sector I do, and having talked to people who’ve been involved in estimating the “expenses” side of government rail projects, I think it’s really just reflective of the fact that the agencies sponsoring rail projects routinely have their planners and consultants deliberately and knowingly produce unrealistically low cost estimates in order to bring the cost vs. ridership figures within the range that’s required to get FTA money, like the New Starts program. Ridership figures are also often overestimated, although there’s also cases of them being underestimated – Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line’s an example. But intentionally having the “expected” costs be less than the agencies know the actual costs will be is pretty much universal, as far as I can tell.

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