Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Representative Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney kept relatively straight faces as they used their first campaign swing together, on the eve of the primary in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, to celebrate the “courage” of their austerity budget. That was no small task, as there is nothing more comic than “corporations are people, my friend” conservatives suggesting that it requires fortitude to propose tax cuts for the rich and a restructuring of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that would steer trillions toward insurance firms and Wall Street speculators.
What’s truly comic, though, is the notion that Ryan’s plan is intended to cut the debt. He admits, albeit quietly, that under his scheme it would take decades to get the government’s fiscal house in order. But that’s not the point. If a Romney/Ryan administration (yes, Ryan now says he would consider accepting a place on the GOP ticket) were to enact the House Budget Committee chair’s plan, it would make the wealthy much wealthier while dramatically expanding the “shared sacrifice” of working Americans, the elderly and the disabled. President Obama aptly described it as “nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
Ryan’s agenda is better understood as the latest variation on GOP schemes to redistribute wealth upward. But there’s a new willingness among a growing number of Democrats—perhaps spurred by the spirit of Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent movements—to counter the austerity lie. President Obama’s budget, which like the Ryan plan is more an election-year manifesto than a fiscal outline, is a step in the right direction, with proposed tax hikes for the wealthy, respect for entitlement programs and a gentle embrace of new stimulus spending. But the best proposals have been put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Senator Tom Harkin.
Both the CPC’s “Budget for All”  and Harkin’s “Rebuild America Act” recognize that the logical starting point in balancing budgets is to ask the wealthiest to pay their share. To that end, the CPC budget ends tax cuts for the top 2 percent; creates new brackets for millionaires and billionaires (including adopting the Buffett Rule); eliminates preferential treatment for capital gains and dividends; abolishes welfare for oil, gas and coal companies; and eliminates loopholes that allow businesses to dodge taxes. Both proposals suggest a financial transactions tax not just to raise revenues but to clamp down on Wall Street speculation.
This approach is a nonstarter with Congressional Republicans and also with too many Democrats, perhaps in part because the corporate media have mostly ignored the progressive alternatives. But numerous surveys show that Americans prefer taxing the rich over cutting Social Security and Medicare. They also support investment in infrastructure and job creation. That should be a lesson for Democrats this election year: the winning alternative to Romney/Ryan austerity is not kinder, gentler Democratic austerity. As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says, it’s smart economics and smart politics to demand that “shared sacrifice start at the top—with Wall Street and the wealthiest Americans.”
In this election season, progressives must highlight the stark differences between Ryan’s budget and the alternatives offered by the CPC and Harkin. We must not merely reject the false promises and cruel calculations of Romney/Ryan austerity. We must elect a Congress that demands accountability, taxes fairly, defends the safety net and spends to rebuild America.