Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Party Leadership

Progressives feel they have been sold up the river in the tax cut deal, and the net roots are attempting to stop Obama's tax cut deal with Republicans. The deal is certainly not optimal, especially if this is how we can expect Obama to deal withRepublican thuggishness over the next two years. The DailyKos demand that Congressional Democrats refuse the Preisdent's "compromise" deserves some thought, especially considering that the primary Republican goal this year is Obama's failure.

Should progressive legislators buck Obama's leadership? The answer depends on what we think of the role of a legislator. Legislators' responsibilities are split in at least three important ways: to the interests of their constituents, to the national interest, and to their party. Each of these obligations suggests different immediate goals, and there are multiple strategies to achieve the disparate goals. The primary strategic motivation of a legislator is to be reelected, as a legislator who is not reelected loses the power to pursue any of the three sets of goals implied by his or her obligations. The strategic necessity of election complicates motivations. While the simplest assumption is that the needs of reelection dovetails with the obligation to constituents, reelection is also contingent on the strength of the party and the ability to attract ideological support from across the country.

This is only a dilemma for legislators that don't support the kleptocracy of giving money for social services away to the wealthy when social services are most needed. I'm not talking about Blue Dogs; I'm talking about Democrats and Progressives who may be able to stop the tax cut deal by filibustering in the Senate. Dick Durbin thinks there are some senators in this position, and Barney Frank seems to be leading the charge. I am not in a position to guess how many Democrats will view this "deal" as enough good and not too much bad and which will view it as politically valuable as compromise for the sake of compromise. So what should a Progressive Democrat do?

There are two choices immediately available to Democrats going forward. They can either support the deal or they can find their own way forward, holding Republican feet to the fire for holding hostage all legislative business (e.g. unemployment assistance, a tax cut for the middle class, the New START treaty ratification, extending Obama tax cuts in the stimulus package including the First-Time Homebuyer Tax Credit) in order to force an extra tax cut on income above $250,000 for the wealthy and a decrease in the millionaire-inheritance tax. Letting the much-trumpeted (though still tentative) "deal" between Republicans and Obama fall through would further the narrative that Obama is weak. He would not be able to deliver the votes in his own party for a "bipartisan" deal. Of course, this is no different from various Republican leaders inability to deliver Republican votes in support of actual bipartisan deals like Health Care Reform or the Stimulus package, but the reporting will be very different for Obama than for Republican leadership.

On the other hand, giving in to the demands of the radical right and the selfish wealthy doesn't project more strength for the President than allowing his party to walk away from the "deal" in which Republicans get everything they want and the economy gets what it needs in the short term, but with an additional $700 billion hole in the budget. Unemployment insurance extension and a cut in payroll taxes are necessary stimulus for the economy, but I am not convinced that Americans couldn't have gotten these things without shipping literal tons of money to the wealthy; money that Republicans are now salivating over cutting from safety net support and slashing spending programs that make society safer. Giving Republican (and childish) idea that taxes are always too high any support will weaken any progressive government initiative. Democrats will not be able to win elections if every proposal requires raising money because Republicans have squandered it so poorly.

The President's bargaining position will be slightly weakened if he cannot guarantee votes on compromises that he strikes, but the President is not a legislator. It is not in his job description to tell Democrats how to vote. He is only nominally in charge of the Democratic Party, though he is the most nationally popular politician who currently serves it. Progressives are exasperated exactly that the President has been making legislative deals with himself instead of leading, not Democrats, but Americans. People who envision Obama as the head of the Democratic Party are mistaking Congress for a Parliament. The President needs to act as the leader of America. This doesn't mean bipartisanship or negotiating or compromise, or any particular legislative tactic. It means staying out of Congress and making a case to the American people about what is needed, describing what progress looks like, and reporting on the successes and failures of Congress.

If Democrats want Obama out of Congress, now would be a good time to tell him that his leadership talents are needed elsewhere. The House and Senate Democrats already have leadership structures, duly elected by the members of those chambers. Nancy Pelosi has been spectacularly effective, including passing out of the House the tax package that Americans should be debating. Republicans wanted to have the tax cuts as a stand-alone issue, and Democrats should have given them that fight. And they should have done it before the 2010 elections.

Progressives can let Obama's compromise fall through, and they don't necessarily need a better alternative that they think will pass. Obama can fight for this compromise if he wants to, but he'll have to answer progressive concerns about the deficit and a $700 billion dollar giveaway to the wealthy in the short term and a hole in the budget that will overshadow the surplus in social security pretty soon. That might be nice: if the White House wants to act like moderate Republicans, maybe we can finally have debates between moderate Republicans and Democrats on morning talk shows. Just don't expect the media to get the dynamic right.

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