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An Example Of How Civil Political Discourse Threatens Modern Conservatism

First Posted: 12/02/10 07:46 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:15 PM ET

Peter Peterson

WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom among this city's elite is that if liberals and conservatives would only sit down and actually listen to each other, they would find common ground somewhere in the middle.

Actually, it's a belief that goes beyond conventional wisdom -- it is an object of faith, the central tenet of the inside-the-Beltway religion known as High Broderism.

And it is most devoutly held when it comes to the subject of the national deficit -- as demonstrated by the recent orgiastic coverage of President Obama's deficit-hawk-heavy fiscal commission.

One of the latest attempts to support this position comes courtesy of AmericaSpeaks, a group heavily funded by billionaire deficit propagandist Pete Peterson's eponymous foundation. The group, which sponsored an exercise in deliberative democracy earlier this year, was out with a press release Thursday declaring: "LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES FIND COMMON GROUND ABOUT HOW TO RESOLVE NATIONAL DEBT."

But the reality is that the 3,500 Americans who came together across 57 sites around the country in June to discuss possible deficit reduction measures rejected their hosts' hawkish framing and -- after putting their heads together, talking civilly across party lines and deliberating on their choices -- adopted progressive positions pretty much across the board, with wide majorities saying "hands off Social Security," supporting tax increases on the rich and calling for significant cuts in the defense budget.

So the real lesson there would appear to be that if liberals and conservatives actually sat down and listened to each other, the result would be widespread agreement on what are traditionally called liberal positions on the issues -- but which perhaps should be renamed simply common sense.

That, I guess, is what happens when one side of the political debate has departed so far from reality that its arguments don't easily survive genuine contact with the enemy.

Thursday's press release was based on a new statistical analysis of the AmericaSpeaks event by three ostensibly "independent" researchers -- one of whom is actually on the group's advisory board and all of whom were involved in designing the event in the first place. Oh, and they were paid by one of the foundations that bankrolled the operation.

The report concludes: "Both liberals and conservatives appear to have moderated in their policy views regarding spending cuts and tax increases." But the evidence they say supports their conclusion actually only suggests that conservatives moved left.

By comparing responses before and after the event, they found that after a day of deliberation:

• Conservatives "seem to moderate their position on taxing the very wealthy," with 24 percent ending up more supportive of the idea than when they started, versus 12 percent who became less supportive.

• Conservatives "became more willing to cut defense spending; 39% increased support for cutting defense whereas only 9 % decreased support."

• And on "raising taxes on the middle class as well as the wealthy" more than twice as many conservatives became more supportive as became less supportive; while for liberals there was movement in the opposite direction but to an almost statistically negligible degree.

The best evidence they could come up with that liberals moved right is a statistically barely relevant change on the issue of a 5 percent cut in the discretionary budget, where 32 percent of liberals became more supportive, but 26 percent actually became less supportive.

And, of course, the overall numbers don't support any theory of convergence.

Despite the organizers' overt efforts to get the participants to support the idea of slashing Social Security benefits, the only positive result they could initially report was that a tiny majority, 52 percent, supported increasing the retirement age. But it turned out that was a computer glitch. In fact, only 39 percent supported that -- in other words, 61 percent were against it. The only popular option regarding Social Security, supported by 60 percent of the participants, was raising the cap on payroll taxes to 90% of earnings.

By contrast, as the final report stated: "Reductions in defense spending by at least 5% received support from 85% of participants. More than half of participants supported a 15% cut and an additional 18% supported a 10% cut. 60% of conservatives supported a 5% cut in defense spending and 83% of those who are somewhat conservative supported at least a 5% cut."

The final report did some selective grouping of answers. For instance, it concluded that "62% of participants ... expressed support for at least a 5% reduction in health care spending." But the numbers also supported the conclusion that, even when charged with putting together packages of policy options that would reduce the long term deficit by $1.2 trillion in 2025, fully 65 percent wanted health care spending reduced no more than 5 percent. And in either case, the options presented to participants weren't satisfactory.

As Roger Hickey blogged for The Huffington Post just after the event:

The AmericaSpeaks background materials actually did acknowledge that the rising budgetary costs of Medicare and Medicaid are driven by the fact that our whole health care system is broken -- and costing both the private sector and government programs much more per person than in countries that have much better health outcomes. They even acknowledged that thoroughgoing reform -- like single-payer health care system -- is the only way to control those rising costs.

However, when it came to options the participants were allowed to vote on, they were all variations on how much people wanted to cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits. At this point in the proceedings, the AmericaSpeaks founder and President, Carolyn Lukensmeyer had to acknowledge a rebellion in the ranks. People were demanding to have the option of voting for "single-payer" reform instead of cutting Medicare and Medicaid, and when she announced a complicated process of writing in that alternative, a roar of approval went up from the crowd in several locations.

Participants also complained that they weren't given the option of reducing defense spending by more than 15 percent, or removing entirely the limit on earnings subject to Social Security.

So it's entirely possible that Republican leaders have a lot to fear from civil, deliberative discourse. Indeed, that's probably the reason why so many people saw Comedy Central host Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" as being implicitly supportive of liberal values.

Put away the crazy talk and you can no longer sustain the position that tax cuts reduce the deficit, or that inflation is a threat to the economy, or that cutting spending on infrastructure and education will lead to a stronger nation, or that Barack Obama is a Muslim dedicated to destroying America -- or, in fact, that reducing the deficit requires a smaller government and massive cut in benefits to our society's most vulnerable members.

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.


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