Opinion

The Great Debate

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

But beneath this surface calm, there is a growing divide within the Democratic Party over what might be considered the tectonic plates of our political economy, a debate that has only begun to surface. Here are some of the core divisions:

Passive or Active Voice Populism

Since Occupy Wall Street, inequality has been Topic A, hardly surprising in an economy where the top 1 percent is capturing 95 percent of the income growth coming out of the Great Recession. The president weighed in, calling inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

A road paved with sand

Bills have been introduced into both the House and the Senate to dismantle the federal government’s role in interstate highways and leave that massive responsibility to individual states. Tea Party adherents and other conservatives are applauding this effort. The Interstate Highway System, they argue, was largely completed in the 1980s and local communities should provide their own transportation needs.

The new transportation bill proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.) however, tragically misses the mark when it comes to our national infrastructure needs. Their legislation would abandon the highway trust fund just when our roads and highways are most in need of reconstruction, repair and expansion.

Though many voters are demanding a check on big government, our elected officials need to remember that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a federal obligation to build and maintain a national infrastructure. Localizing responsibility for the Interstate Highway System is a complete disconnect from how the world’s largest economy works.

Post-shutdown: Time for recriminations

Recriminations!

It’s a familiar ritual in Washington every time a party loses a battle or a candidate loses an election. Only this time, it could lead to something more serious: A split in the Republican Party.

The most severe recriminations are aimed at the Tea Party. Why did they take on a fight they were certain to lose? And without any endgame or exit strategy? Don’t they understand how politics works?

Here’s the answer: No.

Or rather, they do understand how politics works — and they reject it. The United States has a Constitution that divides power. The only way anything gets done is through deal-making and compromise. It’s been that way for 225 years. (See the movie Lincoln for a good example).

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

Shutdown scenarios for a no-budget blockbuster

What will a shutdown of the federal government ultimately look like?

One well-known scenario suggests that roaming bands of survivalists will be plundering stockpiles of abandoned weapons; the last vials of deadly diseases are cracking under the unsupervised mechanisms at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and all communications and travel are frozen — airports shut down, highways unpatrolled, bridges collapsing.

No, wait…that’s The Walking Dead. A zombie menace has shut down any federal authority, and local groups form nomadic associations to survive.

In another scenario, self-appointed militias are in control, and rebellion is brewing. Cities have been abandoned. There is no federal authority. Communities are isolated and terrified.

The danger in shutting down national security

The nation awoke Tuesday to find much of the federal government closed for business. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had refused to fund essential government functions until the rest of Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to reverse a healthcare law passed three years ago and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. By doing so, they put reversing healthcare reform ahead of protecting the nation.

Hundreds of thousands of national security professionals are now on furlough. The latest Office of Management and Budget guidance notes no function has been discontinued that would “imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The Defense Department made clear that “military personnel would continue in normal duty status.”

But even furloughing “non-essential personnel” undermines U.S. security. It hits three critical areas: the Defense Department’s civilian employees, the intelligence community and the agencies that respond to health emergencies.

Shutdown: A fight with no room for compromise

To end the government shutdown, all Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to do is let the House of Representatives vote on a budget. It would pass within 30 minutes. Virtually all 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open, as would as many as 50 Republicans. An easy majority.

But no. Boehner and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are in thrall to Tea Party conservatives. Hard-line conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans. But those conservatives are threatening to lead an insurrection against party leaders if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they don’t go along with the Tea Party.

So what have we got? Minority government.

It’s outrageous when you think about it. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. Why? “Because we’re right, simply because we’re right,” one of them told the New York Times.

Ted Cruz: Blackmailer

On October 28, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his supporters may wish to commemorate the feast day of Saint Jude. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Because if ever there was a hopeless cause, it is killing the Affordable Care Act.

Fighting for hopeless causes is not uncommon in politics. Think of the nearly two centuries it took to abolish slavery and segregation in the United States. Fighting for a hopeless cause can raise public consciousness about an issue and advance the career of the advocate.

But it has to be seen as a noble effort. Cruz’s effort is anything but noble.

Why conservatives spin fairytales about the gold standard

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

The Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th birthday trapped in a political bunker.

At few points since the Fed’s founding in 1913 has it taken such sustained fire. It’s taking fire from the left, because its policies favor Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the other financial corporations that are most responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. But it is also taking fire from the right.

Conservative or Tea Party Republicans have a different kind of criticism. They reject the notion that the Fed should even have the power to regulate the money supply and “debase” the dollar. They believe in hard money and a return to the gold standard.

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