04/13/2011 08:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011

The Danger of Losing the Plot So Early in the Play

If it is true that those whom the gods would destroy they first send mad, then currently we are in serious trouble in Washington, D.C. For in the political theater we have just witnessed -- around the shutdown of the federal government -- there has been madness aplenty: a madness indeed which, unless quickly and effectively challenged, will inevitably rewrite the entire Obama play, to his immediate detriment and to our long-term cost.

In the run up to the "shutdown" crisis, the president, if he spoke publicly at all, still spoke to us from an old script, one rendered mute by the results of the midterm election. As the budget negotiations bogged down early in April, he chose to tell us that the only question was "whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown." "You don't want delays," he said, and "you don't want disruptions, just because of usual politics in Washington." Of course we don't want delays and disruptions. Who could possibly want those, apart from Tea Party libertarians? But by the same token, who, apart from the president, still thinks that the roots of those disruptions and delays lie in the usual politics of Washington? They do not. The current budget crisis is not the product of normal Washington politics. It is the product of the arrival in Washington of Republican members of the House of Representatives who are far from usual -- and proudly so. Many of them, indeed, are Tea Party libertarians.

The new Republicans in Washington are not looking for bipartisan consensus. They are looking to create an entirely new America, one built on the clear philosophical principles to which they personally subscribe. They are looking to create a fully privatized American welfare state, even if that limits access to adequate health care and pensions for the American poor. They are so intensely opposed to abortion as to be willing to deny adequate preventive medicine to tens of thousands of American women. Again, predominantly women at the bottom of the income scale. Many of the new Republicans remain unconvinced that global warming is happening, or that if it is, that regulating the output of carbon dioxide is a necessary response to it. These new Republicans continue to insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that tax cuts pay for themselves and that trickle-down economics works: that taxing the rich discourages enterprise and job creation. They are willing -- indeed they are often keen -- to permanently close government departments performing vital public functions; and their keenness rests, not simply in a commitment to budgetary restraint but also, as Paul Ryan put it, in a commitment "to a cause."

You don't play effective progressive politics with people who are so ideologically driven by compromising with them. You play effective progressive politics in the face of people of that kind by challenging the ideology that drives them, and by reasserting the superiority of your own values and understandings of the world.

The dangers of triangulating with Tea-Party dominated Republicans are now fully evident in the wake of the budget "settlement." Triangulate with these people, and you end up with at least the following:

Secret deals that eat away at vital public programs

It took four days for the details of the deal struck last weekend to even become publicly known; and when the details were known, progressive elements within the president's electoral base were left furious by the reduced funding of so many of their key concerns -- furious, and rightly so, because so many of the cuts to which the administration agreed were ones made to service the Republican Party's social and environmental agenda, not its fiscal one. Things were saved, of course, that Republicans initially demanded should go. The riders on Planned Parenthood and on NPR funding were dropped. But precious budgets were pruned, and some were pruned heavily. The EPA budget, for example, was cut by some 16 percent, with its programs relating to climate change losing $49 million. The funding for health co-ops created under the new health care law was entirely obliterated. The National Science Foundation lost $43 million. FEMA lost $786 million. The Pentagon, by contrast, gained $5 billion (the Republicans had wanted $7 billion), at the very moment when the departments of labor, health and education were losing between them over $5 billion and some 55 programs. The president even agreed to a Republican demand -- entirely unconnected to the federal budget deficit -- that Washington's city government be banned from spending its own money on abortions for low-income women. No wonder Mayor Gray got himself arrested blocking traffic in protest. The amazing thing is that there weren't more of us sitting down with him.

Stronger foundations for Republican attacks to come

By surrendering ground on so many contested areas of spending, and by not creating clear ideological water between Republican conservatism and the Democratic Party's progressive agenda, the Obama negotiations with John Boehner have left the progressive cause weaker than it was before. The negotiations to avoid a government shutdown have emboldened the right. They have underwritten the legitimacy of the Republicans' framing of our problems, and they ensured that -- in budget negotiations to come -- even more ground will have to be conceded to the conservative agenda. The next battle, immediately upon us, will be the vote to raise the debt ceiling. For the administration, the stakes in this battle will be even higher than in the last. Defaulting on U.S. debt would cripple the global economy and plunge the United States into a second recession. But refusing to raise the debt ceiling was something Barack Obama the senator voted for the last time round; and this time the Republican leadership is already indicating its unwillingness to countenance tax increases that could bring the federal deficit down below its legally prescribed debt ceiling. We are poised therefore to see history repeat itself with immense speed, until and unless somebody in the White House wakes up to the new reality in Washington -- the reality that triangulating with conservatives as intransigent as this new lot are, just drags the center of political gravity ever further to the right. Chasing the right is a mug's game -- easy to do but impossible for progressives to win.

An inadequate challenge to the dominant Republican narrative

By negotiating detailed cuts instead of rejecting cuts outright, the Obama administration left intact and dominant the Republican's basic specification of what are our main immediate political problems. For months now, the Republicans have been allowed to shift the focus of public attention away from the consequences of a recession created by their own deregulatory philosophy -- away from the crucial need for a renewed stimulus to generate employment and to ease the housing crisis -- allowed instead to get away unchallenged with their repeated assertion that cutting taxes and federal programs will save, rather than lose, jobs. Even now, there has been no effective presidential challenge to the claim that the budget deficit is so large as to constitute an immediate crisis. On the contrary, last Saturday the president even claimed some credit for making "the largest annual spending cut in our history." There is apparently no presidential anger at the hypocrisy of a campaign to reduce the size of the federal deficit being led by those whose first priorities increased that deficit significantly: tax cuts for the wealthy and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Most importantly of all, until this afternoon we had heard no sustained challenge from the White House to either the vision or the math behind the Ryan budget, even though the evidence is already overwhelming that its implementation would immediately add at least 600,000 to the unemployment rolls and more slowly denude the entire US welfare net of vital public funding. That challenge to Ryan's math and Ryan's philosophy did -- thank goodness -- come at last this afternoon, in the president's address at George Washington University. It is a challenge that, though a bit little and a bit late, the president will need to make over and over again.

To date we have paid a high political price for a serious flaw in the centrism of the Obama administration -- the apparent conviction of his reelection team that you maintain support among independent voters by tacking towards the Republicans, and the associated conviction evident in the president's April 4th address that what alienates people from Washington politicians are open displays of partisanship rather than the absence of clear statements of principle. Even today, when speaking to students at George Washington University, the president repeated his belief that national politicians of good faith are only prevented from finding areas of common ground by flaws in the way in which Washington conducts its business; instead of recognizing that, even in national politics, lawmakers of good faith can hold very different visions of the world -- visions between which there can no compromise, only choice. It is not process but content that now divides Washington; and because it is, the Obama administration would do well to recognize that though it seeks common ground with its political opponents, those opponents want no ground but their own.

If the Republicans continue to dominate the national conversation for the rest of the Obama presidency as they have done since the midterm elections -- if they continue to insist that cutting programs and holding down taxes is the key requirement of the day, and if the Obama administration goes along with them in that specification of our immediate needs -- then two things are as sure as night following day. The first is that the administration will lose the support of its liberal base. The second is that, come 2012, Obama will lose the White House to a Republican candidate with a better record on program cutting than even he can muster. If however the Obama who prevails is the Obama who spoke in Washington today -- the one willing directly to challenge Republican madness with a progressive sanity of his own -- two very different outcomes might yet still follow: independent voters pulled back once more to a president promising progressive change; and this time, progressive change that actually happens.

First posted with full sources at