07/29/2011 12:20 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

What the Debt Crisis Should Be About

The current debt crisis is a failure on the part of the Democrats in Congress. It is a failure to take advantage of Congressional Republicans' divergent approaches toward ideological rigidity as it relates to small government and low taxation. It is a failure -- though not the first -- to wield President Obama's political power effectively in legislative debates. Most importantly it is a failure because it shows Congressional Democrats' utter lack of progressive vision.

Speaker of the House John Boehner's plan is foundering as I write; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to stop Boehner's plan in the Senate (if it even passes) and introduce his own bill. From these two remaining blueprints for managing the nation's debt crisis emerges only one truly significant difference: Reid's plan will postpone another vote on the debt ceiling until after the November 2012 elections, the plan proposed by Boehner will not. In effect, Reid's plan will shield Congressional Democrats' electoral landscape as much as possible, while the Republicans' plan will provide another opportunity to make the incumbent party look weak. This scenario is an entanglement of face-saving measures and political brinksmanship -- and an embarrassment for the Congress as a whole. Both parties' approval ratings in Congress have sunk over the course of the debate. Even though Republicans seem poised to suffer more politically in the coming election, it is Congressional Democrats who have missed the greater opportunity. They have squandered not just a chance for political gain; Democrats have wasted an opportunity to align the party's policies with the American people's priorities.

A recent study released by the University of Maryland's Program for Public Consultation (PPC), entitled "Public Proposes Federal Budget Dramatically Different Than House or White House," suggests that a plan akin to President Obama's -- which, unlike Reid's or Boehner's, included tax increases on the rich -- would have engendered more public enthusiasm than either of the half-measures currently on the table. Specifically, the study shows that a majority of the public would support raising income taxes and estate taxes on the rich (as Obama suggested during the debt ceiling talks before they were torpedoed by Eric Cantor) and cutting defense spending by 18% (Obama's short-lived proposal slightly increased defense spending). The overall impact of the average responder's spending-cut preferences would cut spending by $146 billion and increase revenues by $292 billion. The net impact of this combination far exceeds the savings in either Reid's or Boehner's plan.

Moreover, as policy, these savings would have an impact on the kind of country we have. Do we continue to magnify the differences between rich and poor -- differences in education, political access, and life span among many other things -- or should we seek to create a more equal society? While responders to the PPC poll tended to raise social security benefits to low-income retirees, Democrats chose to accept about 90% of the Republicans' debt-reduction concepts -- including cutting humanitarian social services rather than, for example, corporate welfare -- and attempted to insulate themselves against similar debates in the future. This was a missed opportunity for Democrats to finally begin to expound a vision of progressive politics, a vision of a counterpoint to the small government, low taxation narrative so essential to Republican rhetoric.

Congress should do what the American people want done. In this case, that means raising taxes on the rich and cutting defense spending. Congress must also do what is necessary to resolve the debt crisis. This absolutely requires controlling and lowering the cost of healthcare. Until Congress produces vigorous healthcare cost-reduction legislation and makes deep spending cuts where the public wants them, the debt ceiling issue and the more fundamental challenge of the national debt itself will give rise only to future failures on behalf of Congressional Democrats, deeper public resentment of government in general, and a society more and more riven by disparities between wealth and poverty.

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