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Ari Berman | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Howard Dean: US Should Leave Afghanistan

Though he rose to prominence by opposing the war in Iraq as a presidential candidate, Howard Dean has always been more hawkish than his antiwar reputation suggests. Dean supported the Clinton administration’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, along with the Obama administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan and military campaign in Libya.

So it’s noteworthy that Dean no longer backs Obama’s Afghan mission and believes US troops should begin to withdraw. “I actually supported the president when he sent extra troops to Afghanistan,” Dean told the Daily Beast over the weekend. “But I’ve come to believe that’s not a winnable war.” Dean cited Karzai’s corruption, weak record on women’s rights and the US quagmire in Vietnam as the reasons for his change of heart.

From the article:

“I supported (ramping up troop presence) because I was concerned with what would happen to the women in the country” if the Taliban took control, Dean said. “But I recently read about Karzai saying some very sexist, terrible things, and it’s become obvious that there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two sides.”
He continued: “As much as I feel terrible about what’s happening to the women there, Karzai has shown he can’t be trusted any more than the Taliban to help them.”…
“The Vietnam War showed us we shouldn’t prop up corrupt governments, and that’s what we’ve got in Afghanistan.”

Polls show the country has been skeptical of the war in Afghanistan for quite some time. In the latest Pew Research Poll, 50 percent of Americans said the US and NATO should “remove troops ASAP,” while only 44 percent wanted military troops to stay until the “situation has stabilized.” Yet Afghanistan has remained a backburner issue in the American public’s mind, and the link between America's soaring debt and the $10 billion the US government spends per month in Afghanistan has often been missed. As Bill Hartung wrote recently, “If the Afghan war ended and the funds allocated for it were returned to the states, no state in America would run a deficit next year.”

Perhaps Dean can add some visibility to the US antiwar movement and push for the Obama administration to spend its finite budget resources where it matters most—back home.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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Obama vs. Ryan: Who's Winning the Deficit Debate?

Democratic strategists believe that House Republicans committed political suicide by voting to approve Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan last week. “When we win back the majority, people will look back at this vote as a defining one that secured the majority for Democrats,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

Obama skillfully framed Ryan’s budget during a major speech on the deficit earlier in the week, contrasting his vision of “shared sacrifice” with Ryan’s “deeply pessimistic” plan to gut the social safety net and redistribute income upwards. After a week of enjoying the limelight, the “bold” and “courageous” Mr. Ryan, an instant media darling, suddenly looked like something of a fool. Ryan complained that Obama had characterized his proposal as “basically it's un-American.”

Obama plans to talk up his deficit plan in a series of campaign stops this week in Virginia, Nevada and California, and a virtual town hall hosted by Facebook. Obama’s advisers believe the president is finally on advantageous terrain on this issue. Reported the Post: “Obama faces a political necessity—claiming the debt issue as his own—and a political opportunity. Recent polls show that Americans disapprove of his record on the deficit. But sizable majorities agree that a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes on the wealthy—Obama’s vision—is the best prescription for the nation’s fiscal malady.”

Yet Obama’s deficit hawk transformation carries risks for the president. By arguing that spending and debt are the biggest problems facing the country, his administration no longer makes the case that the government has a significant role to play in boosting the economy—even though many economists believe additional stimulus is still needed. “We do possess many tools for curing cyclical unemployment, both monetary and fiscal, and I feel it is shameful we are not using them more aggressively,” said Christina Romer, former chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Though his speech included a stirring defense of progressive governance, Obama’s plan is actually quite conservative in substance, largely modeled after his Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. Next month, Vice President Biden will convene a bipartisan debt summit with members of Congress to “begin work on a legislative framework for comprehensive deficit reduction,” according to the White House. Any deal the administration strikes with Congressional Republicans will likely incorporate major elements of Ryan’s plan, making it much harder for Obama and Democratic candidates to campaign against it in 2012. Moreover, the bipartisan “gang of six” Senators will soon release their own deficit plan, which Senator Dick Durbin says will fall somewhere between Obama and Ryan—i.e., squarely on the center-right, which is further evidence of how the debate on the deficit is playing out on the GOP’s turf.

The disconnect between deficit-crazed Washington and the concerns of the American public—high unemployment, rising gas prices—appears to be increasing. Poll after poll shows that the country favors job creation over deficit reduction, but neither party seems to be listening. A new Post poll reveals heightened anxiety on the economy—44 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting worse, not better, while 57 percent disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the issue. Despite the radicalism of Ryan’s plan, if the economy does not significantly improve by November 2012, Obama, rightly or wrongly, will likely get the blame.

Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics

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Obama Blasts House GOP, Paul Ryan’s 'Deeply Pessimistic' Budget Plan

In his inaugural address, President Obama sought to reframe the conception of government in America, breaking from the philosophy of both Bill Clinton (“the era of big government is over”) and Ronald Reagan (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”).

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified,” Obama said. The president spent much of the first two years of his presidency pushing ambitious programs that would level the playing field in our society—the stimulus bill, healthcare and financial reform, equal pay for women.

But since the 2010 election, Obama has largely abandoned his argument about the constructive role government can and should play in American society. The entire debate since then has been on the GOP’s terms—first came freezes for discretionary spending and federal pay by the Obama administration, followed by a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, a budget plan for 2011 that included significant cuts to core Democratic programs, and a budget agreement last week that cut billions of dollars more at the expense of middle-class and low-income Americans.

So after months of feebly compromising with the GOP, it was refreshing to hear Obama blast the budget proposal unveiled by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan last week in unusually blunt and forthright language.

Here’s the key section of the speech:

One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.

Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.

A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s what they’re proposing. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.

It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America—the greatest nation on Earth—can’t afford any of this.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck—you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each to pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

 

The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.

In contrast, Obama defended progressive governance, saying that without a social safety net, “we would not be a great country.” He called for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next twelve years, under “an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table, but one that protects the middle-class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future.” Some of his recommendations were progressive in nature—cutting defense spending, raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans, lowering drug prices—while others were more conservative—enacting a three to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases, continuing a freeze on discretionary spending, cutting corporate taxes, leaving the door open to major changes in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

For weeks, all anyone in Washington has wanted to talk about is the deficit, even though poll after poll shows that Americans want the president and Congress to focus their attention elsewhere. As Deepak Bharghava, director of the Center for Community Change, told the Washington Post today: “The fundamental problem in our country right now is unemployment and a jobs crisis, not a deficit crisis. It appears the president is fighting on the wrong terrain and is conceding that the only thing we should be talking about is how to bring down the deficit.”

The president didn’t completely reframe that discussion today, nor did he offer many details to illuminate his own vision. The president has been a historically weak negotiator with Congressional Republicans, so these details will matter a lot in the months and weeks ahead. But at least the president offered the country a choice between two different philosophical visions about the role that government should play in our society. The public can now decide whether they’d like to gut the social safety net or protect it. I’m guessing they’ll choose the latter.

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Budget Agreement Reflects Reverse Class Warfare

The White House and Congress reached an agreement to avert a budget shutdown late Friday night, passed a short-term extension of the budget Saturday morning, but did not release the actual details of the agreement until this morning. So much for a new era of transparency in Washington!

We learned today that the budget agreement includes steep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (targeting programs that combat global warming and protect clean drinking water), international food aid and high-speed rail. Half of the $40 billion in cuts come from the Education, Labor and Heath and Human Services departments, for things like community development grants, HIV/AIDS prevention and low-income heating subsidies. The Pentagon will receive $5 billion more than it did in 2010. This agreement disproportionately harms lower-income and middle-class Americans while asking no sacrifice from the rich and powerful.

How will such cuts impact our economic recovery? As Ezra Klein pointed out, economists projected that the $60 billion budget passed by House Republicans in February would eliminate anywhere from 200,000 to 700,000 jobs. Under that same logic, Klein writes, “$39b in cuts would mean about 120,000 to 450,000 jobs lost.” Though no one has yet done a thorough economic analysis of the latest cuts, the plan could slow economic growth by 1 percent, according to a sample of economists interviewed by the New York Times.

Tomorrow President Obama will give a major speech on the deficit and is expected to highlight the report produced by his deficit-commission, Simpson-Bowles, in November. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that plan could cost the country 4 million jobs over the next three years. “Premature implementation of austerity policies and slowing economic growth would mean two things: more job losses and less deficit reduction,” EPI writes. (For a progressive take on deficit reduction, see Representative Jan Schakowsky’s plan.)

The debate in Washington over the deficit is between a center-right plan (Simpson-Bowles) and a truly right-wing one (Paul Ryan). No wonder the center is moving to the right.

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Why President Obama Is Losing the Budget Fight

Friday night’s dramatic budget agreement represented a major defeat for President Obama and Congressional Democrats. On substance, John Boehner and Congressional Republicans received $7 billion more in spending cuts than they originally asked for. From a messaging standpoint, the entire debate unfolded on the GOP’s terms (excerpt for a brief interlude concerning Planned Parenthood)—the discussion was about how much to cut, not whether to cut or who would be impacted by such cuts or if such cuts would depress economic growth. The word “jobs” was practically absent from the debate.

Wrote Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent:

By agreeing to steep, if temporary, cuts in advance, Dems acceded to the GOP’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame at the very outset, and the debate unfolded entirely on that rhetorical turf.

President Obama’s advisers apparently believe that his best route to reeelection is to acknowledge the need for more fiscal discipline, while picking a fight with the GOP over the need for targeted government investment in our future and painting the GOP’s cut-at-all-costs vision as out of the mainstream. In fairness, his advisers, as Paul Krugman noted recently, may very well be right about this.

But it’s still worth appreciating how far to the right the debate has shifted, in part because of Democratic acquiescence. The idea that government spending should be a job-creation tool in our arsenal was entirely marginalized, to the point that it was simply not part of the discussions; meanwhile, the insane conservative demand for $100 billion in cuts was treated as a kind of outer right-wing boundary of legitimate discourse. The result: Giving Boehner more than he originally asked for in cuts became the stuff of middle ground compromise.

Obama, as Krugman, put it: “has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas.” Wrote Krugman today:

Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion—a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay.

The president is following the example of Bill Clinton after the 1994 election, who brought in Dick Morris to “fast-forward the Gingrich agenda.” Often lost in this story is how Clinton, en route to a balanced budget, fought Gingrich over steep spending cuts and vowed to protect “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment,” as part of the budget deal. Clinton confronted, then compromised. Obama has fast-forwarded the Boehner agenda with no pushback, even bragging about enacting “the largest annual spending cut in our history.” The president is practically doing Boehner’s job for him!

The White House is obsessed with positioning Obama as a president who stays above the fray during partisan disputes. But the president’s unwillingness to take sides has its own cost. “For Obama, it is not good enough to cast himself as the school principal scolding competing congressional gangs,” wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. “He needs the courage to defend the government he leads. He needs to declare that he will no longer bargain with those who use threats to shut down the government or force it to default on its debt as tools of intimidation.”

Heretofore, debates over economic policy between Obama and Congressional Republicans have followed a familiar script. Said Jon Cohn of The New Republic:

Obama starts off with a flexible, center-left position. The Republicans start off with a rigid, far-right position. Obama’s commitment to bringing people together seems absolutely sincere; the Republicans’ interest in shredding the welfare state seems absolutely sincere. The two go back and forth, eventually reaching a compromise that is somewhere between the two ideological starting points—which is somewhere on the right.

This week President Obama will deliver a major address concerning the deficit, responding to the plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan last week. Ryan, by introducing a truly radical blueprint that would gut the social safety net and drastically redistribute income upwards, has given Democrats a major opening to present an alternative economic vision to the public. But thus far Obama has been content to meet Republicans in the middle, even as the middle moves sharply to the right, instead of laying out a bold economic narrative of his own.

House Republicans are now determining the priorities and direction of the entire US government. Until that changes, Obama and Congressional Democrats will continue to find themselves on the defensive.

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Advice for Obama: Confront, Then Compromise

Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent makes a good point about parallels between the budget battle of 1995 and today. While conventional wisdom correctly holds that President Clinton trumped House Speaker Newt Gingrich in that fight, less attention has been paid to why that was the case—because Clinton pushed aside his strategy of triangulation and challenged the scope of Gingrich’s cuts. As evidence, Sargent unearths a Washington Post story from December 24, 1995, explaining Clinton’s triumph:

The only time Clinton’s ratings have improved substantially the past year as a result of his actions has been when he adopted a strategy of confrontation, not triangulation.
 
All through the summer and fall, Clinton’s favorability numbers stagnated in the 46 to 48 percentage point range. The Republican leadership in Congress was pushing ahead on the drive to balance the budget, including substantial reductions in projected Medicare spending. On Oct. 19, the House approved seemingly controversial changes in the Medicare program.
 
Through Nov. 1, however, Clinton’s numbers did not change.
 
Only when the battle lines were abruptly drawn—as the federal government was shut down Nov. 14 and Clinton began to turn Medicare into a polarized issue pitting himself and congressional Democrats against the Republican congressional majority—did his poll numbers begin to go up and stay up.

I elaborated on this point in a Nation article earlier this year, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0?” Here’s the key section:

During his first major confrontation with the GOP Congress—over the 1995 budget—Clinton ignored [Dick] Morris’s advice, according to [Paul] Begala, and refused to cut a deal with Gingrich, pledging to resist cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Begala recounts an oft-told story in which Clinton, during a meeting with Gingrich, pointed at the Oval Office desk (named The Resolute, a present from Queen Victoria in 1880) and told the GOP leader, “If you want to pass your budget, you’re going to have to put somebody else in this chair.” Begala wants Obama to study that Clinton, not the Morris concoction. “It is that Gary Cooper type of leadership,” Begala says, “that people are now looking for in President Obama.”
 
Gingrich stubbornly plowed ahead with his spending cuts and forced a government shutdown, which backfired spectacularly and jolted Clinton’s sagging poll numbers upward…”What Obama should take from the Clinton experience is that you absolutely have to pick some early battles to stand strong on,” says Mike Lux, Clinton’s special assistant to the president for public liaison. “The Republicans will give us a hundred different opportunities, between bills they introduce and crazy shit they say…. The hardest decision will be picking which ones to focus on.” Former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg says Obama “should be drawing red lines on things that are central to the purpose of his presidency and ought to be looking to get work done with the Republicans in other areas.”

In recent days, Obama has played the role of negotiator-in-chief, huddling with John Boehner and Harry Reid in order to avoid a government shutdown. Yet by failing to thematically challenge the GOP’s cuts or advance an alternative narrative on the economy, he’s made it easier for Boehner to keep demanding larger and larger spending cuts. Even if House Republicans are unhappy with a final agreement, any deal that is struck will include major concessions by Democrats.

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What Happened to the GOP’s Social Issues Truce?

Last summer, Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels advised GOP leaders to “call a truce on the so-called social issues” until the country’s dire economic situation had been reversed. Economic and social conservatives were “just going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” Daniels said. Social conservative groups like the Family Research Council immediately attacked Daniels, but many Republicans responded favorably to his proposal. In the 2010 election, Republican candidates by and large stayed away from hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion (those who did not, such as Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, lost).

Now Daniels’ truce, to the extent that it ever existed, has fallen apart, with House Republicans threatening to force a government shutdown because of their dislike for family planning services at Planned Parenthood. The fact that cancer screenings and birth control pills have become a deal-breaker for Republicans in the budget fight illustrates the extent to which high-profile social conservatives like Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Mike Pence (R-IN) represent the balance of power in the GOP caucus.

A battle is underway inside the Republican Party right now between the pragmatists and extremists. John Boehner wants to be in the former camp, but, for now, he’s siding with the latter. The extremists are winning.

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GOP Would Shut Down Government Over EPA, Planned Parenthood

A deal to prevent a government shutdown has yet to be reached, and the clock is ticking ominously toward a shutdown on Friday. After a late-night meeting between President Obama, Harry Reid and John Boehner, sources said a tentative agreement was reached to cut around $34.5 billion in fiscal year 2011–12, according to the Huffington Post (the specifics of the cuts remain secret). But the sticking point concerns GOP “riders” focused on hot-button issues unrelated to the deficit, such as defunding family planning services at Planned Parenthood and preventing the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions—two highlights of the budget passed by House Republicans in February.

Just yesterday, the Senate rejected the House Republicans’ EPA provision, and would almost certainly do the same regarding the Planned Parenthood amendment, which saves only $330 million but targets much-needed services for low-income families, such as preventative healthcare and cancer screenings (for more on the Title X program, read this primer from HHS). “We’re on the runway now and waiting for the speaker to come in for a landing,” Senator Chuck Schumer said today. “We have an agreement in principle…. We pretty much have a consensus on the cuts and numbers…. Ideological riders that have nothing to do with the deficit are standing in our way.”

Neither party has been a profile in courage during the budget fight, as I wrote yesterday. Republicans have been heartlessly stubborn and Democrats timid and afraid to fight back. President Obama has been MIA throughout much of this discussion and has failed to use the bully pulpit to promote a coherent economic message. But it’s now clear that Obama and Democrats badly want to work out a compromise deal, and Republicans do not (the latest polling underscores the split between Democrats/Independents and Republicans on this issue). If House Republicans force a government shutdown because of their dislike for Planned Parenthood and the EPA, they will deservedly get the bulk of the blame for the current budget morass. 

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Government Shutdown? Blame GOP Heartlessness and Democratic Cowardice

InTrade says there’s a 52 percent chance there will be a government shutdown before July. The brinksmanship and theatrics aside, I’ve long believed a shutdown would be averted and a budget deal reached for 2011–12. Now I’m not so sure. Some in the GOP are eagerly cheering on the prospect of a shutdown (literally), with the conservative Republican Study Committee even unveiling a countdown clock on its website (as of this post, there’s two days, ten hours, three minutes and five seconds left).

A mixture of Republican stubbornness and Democratic timidity has brought us to this point. Democratic leaders could have passed a budget before the 2010 elections or during the lame-duck Congress, when they held large Congressional majorities, but by punting on the issue, they empowered the new House Republican majority, whose number-one issue in the 2010 election was cutting government spending. In February 2011, House Republicans passed $60 billion in spending cuts for 2011 by targeting the usual suspects—eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, preventing the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, blocking the implementation of healthcare reform, cutting off support for NPR, PBS and AmeriCorps. Their bill looked much more like an effort to defang longtime opponents and score political points than a responsible attempt to actually balance the budget or create jobs. Goldman Sachs predicted that the plan would halt economic growth by 1.5 to 2 percentage points in the coming year, while Moody’s forecast it would cost 700,000 jobs.

Since then, Congress has twice temporarily kept the government running, and it looked as if John Boehner and Congressional Democrats had recently struck a deal to cut $33 billion from the budget for 2011-2012. But Boehner denied there was any deal, and promptly upped the number to $40 billion in cuts. Every time a deal looks imminent, the GOP raises the stakes, in the hopes that Democrats will take the bait (a pretty good assumption, given the deal reached to extend all the Bush tax cuts in December 2010). And these negotiations have been held in secret, so no one actually knows what any final deal will entail (how reassuring). Shutdown or not, the public is unlikely to be happy with the final outcome.

What would a shutdown look like? Here’s how CBS News described what happened in 1995:

The shutdown resulted in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of passport and college applications, the closure of national parks (including the Grand Canyon), failure to process new Medicare claims and the suspension of many government services. In addition, 760,000 federal workers were furloughed during the impasse. (Their pay was reinstated when Mr. Clinton signed a measure to fund the government in early 2006.) The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the 21-day shutdown, together with a six-day partial government shutdown in November 1995, ended up costing more than $1.25 billion.

Another shutdown could force troops to fight without pay and would likely imperil the country’s fragile economic recovery. It would make both parties appear like squabbling adolescents (even more than they already do) and reinforce the belief that Washington is ungovernable, which would ultimately hurt President Obama, who wants to seem like a bipartisan problem-solver. That’s why Obama pollster Cornell Belcher told me a few months ago that that a shutdown today would be “devastating for both parties.”

Despite the alarming projections of how the House Republican budget would harm the country, it’s the Democrats who have been on the defensive during the budget debate, principally because President Obama has declined to seriously engage in the discussions or outline an alternative narrative on the economy that is distinct from the GOP. Though they hold only one house of Congress, House Republicans act like they’re in control of the entire government, with little pushback from the White House or Senate Democrats. Both parties now endorse the idea that spending cuts are the best cure for our ailing economy, even though there is no evidence that is the case.

Obama has said that he was perceived as too much of a “tax and spend liberal Democrat” in the last election, so his administration has moved to the right as a result—despite the fact that poll after poll shows that the public believes the unemployment rate is a far more pressing problem than the deficit. “The White House, in particular, has effectively surrendered in the war of ideas,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote recently. “It no longer even tries to make the case against sharp spending cuts in the face of high unemployment.” Throughout this budget fight, we’ve been having the wrong economic debate, as my colleague Katrina vanden Heuvel noted this week. Both our political and media class are guilty of focusing obsessively on spending cuts while ignoring the public’s overriding priority: jobs.

House Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, an instant media darling, raised the stakes of the debate this week by finally unveiling his radical budget plan for 2012 amidst much fanfare and coverage. Here’s how the Economic Policy Institute characterized what Ryan’s plan would do:

The budget, among other things, includes a plan to privatize Medicare by forcing recipients to buy insurance on the open market, to gut Medicaid by shifting costs to states and reducing funding, to cut taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, and to reduce the nation’s ability to make needed investments by capping overall levels of federal spending. The plan would not only put the fragile recovery at risk, but it would also undermine economic growth and job creation for years.

This budget is impressive in its ability to not only inflict maximum harm on the economy, but to concentrate that harm on those most in need. This will not only cost the economy hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of jobs over the next five years, it will also destroy the social safety net and undermine policies that support the middle class.

Two-thirds of the cuts in Ryan’s plan, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, would harm programs like Medicare and Medicaid that help lower-income Americans. None other than Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, admitted this week that Congress will never balance the budget without raising taxes, an argument few Republicans will make and Democrats vacated when the Obama Administration agreed to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts.

Boxed in by the GOP, the Obama administration may have no choice but to cut a bad deal with Boehner in order to avoid another government shutdown. But that doesn’t mean Democrats can’t aggressively critique Ryan’s plan and begin to frame the budget fight on their terms for 2012. Just because Obama kicked off his re-election campaign with a substanceless video doesn’t mean he can afford to be MIA on the biggest issue of the day.

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Washington's 'Beat Sweetener' Media Culture

In a 1988 column for Newsweek, journalist Jonathan Alter used the term “beat sweetener” to describe how access-obsessed Washington journalists curried favor with the powerful politicians they covered.

“To keep access open, reporters need to coddle their sources,” Alter wrote. “In recent years, this cozy system of mutually assured seduction has grown corruptive…. Especially useful sources…are rewarded with occasional ‘beat sweeteners.’ The New York Times…has made a minor specialty of such puffy stories…. Some beat sweeteners are written partly out of hope for future morsels from an important source.”

Two decades later, the beat sweetener remains in fashion among the Washington punditocracy. In 2009, the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut wrote a fawning profile of then–White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, whom Ken Silverstein of Harper’s deemed “the most egregious beat sweetener of the Obama years.”

Last weekend Jeff Zeleny of the Times penned a worthy successor to Kornblut in the beat sweetener pantheon. His Sunday profile of Messina, now Obama’s re-election campaign manager, was filled with gushing quotes from Messina allies like Rahm Emanuel and David Plouffe, and chockfull of irrelevant details—how many songs are on his iPod, what he ate for lunch—that told us nothing about what he actually did in the White House or what kind of campaign manager he will be. Not surprisingly, grateful administration officials, including White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, quickly circulated Zeleny’s piece via e-mail and Twitter. The incestuousness between a top journalist and his prominent sources was anything but subtle.

Three days earlier, I published an in-depth piece about Messina in The Nation, “Obama’s Enforcer,” which examined his controversial tenure in the White House and for his old boss, Montana Senator Max Baucus, topics Zeleny didn’t bother to cover for his article. (Nonetheless, Bryan Hood of National Journal hilariously called Zeleny’s article “the real substantive Messina piece.”) After my article came out, Marc Ambinder of National Journal and Democratic strategist Bob Creamer, writing on the Huffington Post, posted lengthy and enthusiastic defenses of Messina, which Ben Smith of Politico recounted in a blog called “The Messina Wars.” (Ambinder has defended Messina on repeated occasions and Creamer is one of his closest friends in Democratic political circles.)

Wrote Smith: “This is a moment for some of the media and Democratic infrastructure to pick sides, stake out positions: Do you want the authorized leaks or the unauthorized ones…. Do you want an appointment in the second term or a regular spot on the Ed Show?”

When I reported my piece, a number of plugged-in sources in Washington said that no one would talk to me, because everyone in Democratic politics was afraid of Messina (some courageous souls took the plunge anyway). Evidently, a number of political journalists and operatives in Washington share these fears, viewing it as their job to defend the new Obama campaign manager, which begs the question—why can’t he defend himself? I don’t mean to sound saintly, but that’s a sad commentary on the Washington press corps, which should be focused on reporting critically and fairly about those in power, rather than worrying about how those in lofty positions perceive them.

In any case, “beat sweeteners” rarely lead to a revelatory outcome, as Alter pointed out. “In the end, neither presidents nor the journalists who cover them get much of importance out of this way of doing business,” he wrote. “The truly major stories—like Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal—were missed by the White House press corps altogether.”

Insider access, it turns out, is often overrated.

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