Posts Tagged ‘Senator Tom Coburn’

Real Fiscal Responsibility & Deficit Politics: Republicans

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

See Part 1: An Introduction here. Parts 3 and 4 discussing the Democratic approach and then lessons from this moment of “welfare scleroris/imperial overstretch” coming tomorrow and Friday.

Republicans have called themselves, and are once again trying to position themselves, as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is the pendulum swing of deficit politics in its second repetition – as Republicans run up massive deficits during their time in power and then attempt to pass off the blame for raising taxes or cutting programs onto the Democrats who succeed them in office.

The political challenge the Republicans face is intriguing. Their ideology holds the solution to the deficit is to shrink the size of the government. Yet the Republican base consists of corporate America, the military, and the elderly – the largest beneficiaries of current government spending. Given this, it’s not surprising that while in power Republicans have expanded rather than shrinking government. Bush expanded Medicare further than anyone since LBJ created it all while cutting taxes and engaging in two wars and allowing Congress to engorge itself with discretionary spending increases never before allowed. Bush was not an isolated example. Like his apparent role model, Ronald Reagan, he saw deficit spending as a way to win politically in the short term as you gave everyone what they wanted – and protected those interest groups who supported you – while in the long term the incredible irresponsibility would force government to shrink, and perhaps even discredit the idea of a competent or sustainable government program. In other words, deficits were the way to “starve the beast.”

Republicans did not jettison this approach along with Bush when they began to repudiate his legacy. John McCain – for all his talk of fiscal rectitude – offered more of the same in his campaign agenda. He proposed dramatic tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts (while masking this by proposing the elimination of pork barrel spending which represents a minuscule portion of the federal budget.) As an alternative to the stimulus, McCain and the Republicans attempted the same trick – attacking the plan for adding to the deficit with spending while proposing a plan that would add even more to the deficit through tax cuts (which the Congressional Budget Office determined was a less effective way to stimulate the economy.) For Republicans, increasing the deficit by cutting taxes is “fiscally responsible” – while increasing the deficit with spending is “generational theft.”

What’s tricky is how Republicans position themselves with regards to the looming fiscal crisis. The business conservatives who make up an influential portion of the Republican base tend to propose pragmatic but politically impossible solutions like cutting spending to the other core Republican constituencies – the elderly and the military, and sometimes, even the tax and other subsidies to big corporations. The other groups seem primarily concerned with ensuring that their own government dollars continuing to grow. The past two times a liberal has taken office following several terms of extreme fiscal irresponsibility by a Republican though, a semi-independent movement has sprung up, thus changing the political dynamics in the Republican party. This movement of citizens concerned about the size of government, of government debt, and especially of liberals being in charge of this government (which suddenly seems more intrusive now that it is in the control of those they don’t sympathize with) was incarnated in Ross Perot’s two presidential campaigns, the 1994 Republican Revolution, and today, the Tea Parties. In each instance, this movement has coalesced around an inchoate frustration with the way things are coupled with the remarkably fixed position of opposing everything the Democrats do, opposing tax increases, and supporting the reduction of the deficit. Though this logically must lead to cutting government programs, which programs will be cut always remains vague which works well enough until a Republican gets in power.

To balance and rally these constituencies while out of power – the anti-tax fiscal hawks, the elderly relying on government programs, the military reliant on government spending, and the corporations who profit from government favors – Republicans have adopted a framework whereby they condemn any new spending as “generational theft” while protecting the status quo. Within this framework, Republicans claim their protection of the status quo which is screwing over my generation is actually about protecting my generation. This language also comforts the elderly who don’t wish to see any reduction in their benefits. Under the Republican approach, the only elderly who will see a reduction in benefits under the Republican plan are the eventual elderly of the younger generations – as the government programs they are now paying for cease.

The challenge Obama has given to the Republicans though is to propose a solution to the looming fiscal crisis through health care reform. Republicans have responded by claiming that the plans will add to the deficit (contrary to the Congressional Budget Office) while at the same time they have been attacking any measures in the plan which might actually cut costs. For example, Senator Coburn has said, “If you’re a senior and you’re on Medicare, you better be afraid of this bill” – which is a difficult position to maintain while at the same time holding that any deficit spending today is “generational theft.” But it is of course, the only political answer they have.

The Republicans – for short term political expediency – are creating an interesting political dynamic (and an impossible situation for the country.) They are telling the elderly that any spending that adds to the deficit is stealing from their grandchildren and children – while telling them to be afraid of any cuts to the programs they like. Meanwhile, as they filibuster any attempts to alleviate the situation, they inculcate the belief among the younger generation that the government cannot do anything right – pointing to the approaching fiscal disaster as proof. The hope must be that if they are correct that this disaster cannot be averted, their obstruction of any attempt to avoid it will be forgiven, especially if the disaster itself discredits the government, thus bringing the younger generation ideologically closer to the Republican position.

Thus is the logic of deficit politics and starve-the-beast governance.

The Maddow-Coburn Debate on Meet the Press; and the Necessity of Violence

Monday, August 17th, 2009

A few observations on watching Meet the Press yesterday. In a lot of ways, I think that show demonstrates the low quality of our political debate today. And yesterday’s show was one of the better, more factually on point, more honest, least full of crap episodes in recent memory. It wasn’t about “gotcha” moments as much as policy and politics. No one there was seriously promoting any of the blatant falsehoods that have determined much of the debate in the rest of the media – the “death panels” and Nazi imagery for example. In many ways, this became a very meta debate about the debate – which is actually a conversation I think we need to have as a country.

David Gregory though seemed determined to take each moment that threatened to lead to acutal honest conflict or insight and “move on” as quickly as possible. With the participants wanting to argue it out, they would talk over him trying to make their point before he ended the game prematurely. Maddow created a few insightful moments with her apparently well-researched appearance. She wasn’t as willing to let the bullshit slide as the others at the table – and she had papers full of research in front of her. Gregory asked some good questions, but let the bull slide. For example, here he asked a serious question of Senator Tom Coburn:

MR. GREGORY: [L]et’s talk about the tone of the debate.  There have been death threats against members of Congress, there are Nazi references to members of Congress and to the president.  Here are some of the images. The president being called a Nazi, his reform effort being called Nazi-like, referring to Nazi Germany, members of Congress being called the same.  And then there was this image this week outside of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a town hall event that the president had, this man with a gun strapped to his leg held that sign, “It is time to water the tree of liberty.” It was a reference to that famous Thomas Jefferson quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

That has become a motto for violence against the government.  Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, had that very quote on his shirt the day of the bombing of the Murrah building when 168 people were killed.

Senator Coburn, you are from Oklahoma.  When this element comes out in larger numbers because of this debate, what, what troubles you about that?

SEN. TOM COBURN (R-OK):  Well, I’m, I’m troubled anytime when we, we stop having confidence in, in our government.  But we’ve earned it.  You know, this debate isn’t about health care.  Health care’s the symptom.  The debate is an uncontrolled federal government that’s going to run–50 percent of everything we’re spending this year we’re borrowing from the next generation.  You…

MR. GREGORY:  That’s—but wait, hold on, I want to stop you there.  I’m talking about the tone.  I am talking about violence against the government. That’s what this is synonymous with.

SEN. COBURN:  The, the—but the tone is based on fear of loss of control of their own government.  What, what is the genesis behind people going to such extreme statements?  What is it?  We, we have lost the confidence, to a certain degree, and it’s much worse than when Tom was the, the, the leader of the Senate.  We have, we have raised the question of whether or not we’re legitimately thinking about the American people and their long-term best interests.  And that’s the question.

For me that exchange was a head-turning moment. Asked to confront a man who has adopted the same quote that a terrorist did when attacking a building in his own state, a man who is using extreme rhetoric that suggests he would be in favor of assassination, he refuses to condemn him outright. He hedges; he wants us to understand that man – to see him as responding to a world that’s unfair to him.

Gregory at this point seems to let the matter go – but Maddow takes Coburn on. You can tell she’s taken aback too:

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that a right wing Republican Senator would plead for “understanding” in quasi-defense of extreme right wing rhetoric and threats of violence. After all – what else can he expect?

I suppose my point is: if any people out there take Sarah Palin’s statement that children will be put to death by “death panels” if Obama’s health care plan succeeds seriously; if any people out there seriously believe a Holocaust is about to take place if this health care reform is passed; if they believe that their children are going to be indoctrinated into an atheistic faith in Obama if health care passes; if they believe that their grandparents of their children are in danger – if someone believes any or all of these things, then violence is justified.

We make heroes out of the men who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler. If we now say that Obama is another Hitler, aren’t we advocating assasination? If we say our child will be killed by Obama, aren’t we implicitly endorsing violence to protect our children?

How can we – as a society – have an adult conversation about the pros and cons of the specific health reforms being considered with this unhinged debate? We can’t. Instead, we just have to let the unsustainable status quo stay in place.