There is no question that inside-outside strategies are going to be needed to assure that President Obama's "Deficit Commission" does not balance the federal accounts on the backs of working Americans.
Progressive members of the House and Senate are going to need to say "no" with a level of commitment and consistency that many of them failed to display during the fights over healthcare and financial-services reform. Activist groups are going to need to pressure Congress in smart and effective ways.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, gets this.
An organizer before he was elected mayor of Burlington, congressman and senator, Sanders has taken the lead in pulling together a muscular inside-outside coalition of members of Congress, labor unions, senior-citizen organizations and others to present and fight for progressive alternatives to the proposal that National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to address the deficit by making major cuts in programs that are essential for seniors, college students, working families and vulnerable Americans.
"It is no surprise that these two favor draconian cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the needs of our veterans, and education while proposing tax reductions for the wealthy and large profitable corporations," says Sanders, whose office describes former Wyoming Senator Simpson as "a darling of the Republican right wing" and former Clinton White House chief of staff Bowles as "a former investment banker who made a fortune on Wall Street."
The Vermont independent's view recognizes that deficits have mushroomed not because of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid but because of "two unpaid wars, tax breaks for the wealthy, a Medicare prescription drug bill written by the pharmaceutical industry, and the Wall Street bailout."
"Everyone agrees that over the long-term we have got to reduce the record-breaking $13.7 trillion national debt and unsustainable federal deficit," the senator says. "The national debt is a very serious issue and we’ve got to tackle it, but we can do it without balancing the budget on the backs of middle-class families."
To that end, Sanders has invited progressive activists and economists to meet next week in Washington to develop a progressive plan to cut the deficit. "We all know that there are a number of fair ways to reduce deficits without harming the middle class and those who have already lost their jobs, homes, life savings and ability to send their kids to college," he says. "The time has come to put these proposals into a package so that a fair and progressive deficit reduction plan will become part of the national discussion."
Where would Sanders begin?
1. End Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
2. Stop funding expensive and outdated cold war–era Pentagon programs.
3. Eliminate tax credits for big oil companies that have posted the highest profits in history.
Sounds like the start of a plan.
It won't stop there, of course.
But the Sanders approach illustrates a fundamental reality: It is possible to restore fiscal responsibility without stealing from working Americans, forcing them to retire later and undermining their healthcare benefits.
That's a message progressives need to deliver. And Sanders is exactly right when he argues that, with smart inside-outside strategies, this debate can be steered in the right—make that the left—direction.