WASHINGTON -- A resolution to raise the nation's debt ceiling may remain far off. But the long-term framing of the debate over spending and debt is becoming slightly clearer, and it's causing philosophical fissures among Democrats.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) aired his concern that the fiscal "belt-tightening" President Obama and many Democrats have pursued has effectively diminished the party's brand. Democrats, he argued, have "allowed the center of the political debate to be shifted so far to the right that we find ourselves debating on their territory and using Republican language."
"It's very troubling," he said.
Removed from office after a bruising re-election campaign, Strickland has largely avoided the political spotlight, choosing, instead, to help to build Democratic infrastructure in Ohio. But the debt ceiling debate has piqued his interest and drawn him back into the national conversation -- in large part, he said, because he's worried that his party is unnecessarily folding its superior hand.
Instead of conceding philosophical points to fiscal hawks, he said, the president should being using his bully pulpit to reframe the debate. Congressional Democrats, he added, should be forcing regular votes on "jobs bills" that would create an effective contrast between themselves and Republicans.
"You've got to create conflict, but it's got to be the right kind of conflict," he said. "The thing that bothers me is we allow ourselves to debate issues using their frame and we're doing it with this deficit issue. Everyone now, with the exception of maybe [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi, begins their first statement with, 'Oh, we've got to deal with the deficit.' Yes! But not in 2011. We've got to deal with job losses in 2011."
Conceptually, there are few in the party who would outwardly disagree with Strickland. The president himself, in a recent news conference, said he would prefer to invest in infrastructure and state aid. "But I’m operating within some political constraints here," he added, "because whatever I do has to go through the House of Representatives."
That's not a good enough excuse for the Ohio Democrat, who approaches the debate from the vantage point of a former governor of a state hit hard -- even before the recession -- by a wave of bad economic developments. At the very least, he argues, the government (including the White House) shouldn't be embracing the notion of austerity.
"You don't take a problem that has developed over decades, that may be structural in nature, and decide, 'Aha! Eureka! We've reached a conclusion -- we've got to solve this problem in the midst of the greatest recession,'" he said. "Of all the times to solve it."
Strickland predicts that adding trillions of dollars in federal spending cuts to state budget crises will do little more than result in "fewer needy people getting the essential services they need." State governments, after all, are already slashing critical social services.
"States have been cutting going on for four years now. They are deep into the bone and revenues are down about 9 percent from before the recession," said Mike Leachman, assistant director of the state fiscal project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute. "If you pile on additional cuts in federal support by cutting Medicaid, which will just shift costs to states, and other reductions in state aid for other kinds of programs, from head start to environmental programs to education, it would just dig down further into that hole that states are already in."
Sipping from a cup of coffee just a block away from where debt ceiling talks were taking place, Strickland said he had not yet closed the door on running for office again. But his answer to the dilemma Leachman describes would make him an outcast in national politics.
Indeed, it exposes the very rift that has emerged between the party's leadership and those members removed from the beltway's political theater.
Rather than make cuts to federal expenditures now, he argues, the government should invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure and green jobs. Instead of going after public employee unions, which his successor John Kasich (whom Strickland called a "bully") has done, government should lean on the well-off instead. And if the critics decry those tactics as 'class warfare,' politicians shouldn't be shy about admitting they're right.
"It is class warfare. And as Warren Buffett says, their class is winning. The upper class is winning this fight," said Strickland. "It's about economic justice and fairness. Republicans say it is about individual responsibility. I say it’s about individual opportunity."
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