Government budget proposals, it is said, are reflections of political leaders' values. Truer words were never spoken, and in the recent budget proposals, we can see enormous differences in values. We also are seeing a sadly limited range of political values being debated: a choice between a classic D.C. centrism represented by Barack Obama's budget, and a truly far, far, far-right, extreme conservatism represented by the list of proposed budget cuts released by House Republicans. A truly progressive budget is not being seriously considered by either party, but because the Republicans have gone so far off the deep end, the chasm between Obama and the Republicans is still wider than the Grand Canyon.
Now if you want a wonky, green eyeshade type of analysis, there are far better places you can look. (Check out these links to some great websites and blog posts for more detailed policy numbers: here, here, and here.) What I want to do instead is to talk about the messages these budgets will convey to the American people, and how that shapes our nation's political debate going into 2012.
For the Republicans, the message of their budget couldn't be clearer: If you are poor or middle class, you are completely and totally on your own. The government is leaving the field. The only appropriate metaphor for what Republicans are proposing is a meat ax taken to the arms and legs -- and sometimes neck -- of virtually every program that does something good for the lives of low- and middle-income people in this country. It doesn't matter at all whether a program has been proven effective and cost-efficient. It doesn't matter that a program might have wide support from the American people. It quite literally makes no difference whether the program being cut saves people's lives: It all gets the ax. Massive cuts in K-12 education, special ed, programs for kids with disabilities, programs for especially poor kids, Head Start, huge cuts to food and drug safety inspection, and cuts in funding for new medical research for cancer and diabetes. Their budget eliminates 5 million meals for the home-bound elderly, and removes 600,000 people from the main nutrition program for poor children and their mothers. The money to pay for cops on the beat to watch over the big banks, insurance companies and offshore oil drillers is gone. The Republican budget proposal end huge numbers of inspections at coal mines, and stops most investigations of employers screwing their workers on their wages and working conditions. Their budget has big cuts from teachers, firefighters, and police officers on the street, and will result in higher property taxes for most Americans. And the biggest cuts of all come from transportation spending -- roads, bridges, high-speed rail, airport modernization -- which means at least 130,000 jobs will be lost, and our decaying infrastructure will decay even faster.
Many elderly and poor people will quite literally die if the Republican budget is enacted, and any opportunities for their children and grandchildren to climb out of the cycle of poverty because of good educational opportunities will be flushed down the toilet. It is clearly not just the poor and elderly that will suffer because of these cuts: Everything -- literally every single thing -- middle-class Americans rely on their government for will have the meat ax fall on it. Schools, roads, bridges, municipal water systems, clean air, libraries, local property taxes, food safety, product safety, protection from unscrupulous employers, oversight of the biggest banks and insurers so they won't exploit people: Everything that matters is decimated.
It is painfully obvious that this isn't what Americans voted for when they put Republicans in charge of the House, but in case you need any reinforcement of that idea, check out this chart from the latest Democracy Corps poll out today:
The message the Republicans are sending to the American people is that they are in a blind fury at everything in government except for the military and corporate subsidies. The more the American people understand what Republicans are proposing, the more they will turn away from them.
The message from President Obama, on the other hand, can be boiled down to this: I'm not crazy like those guys. Core to his identity is that he wants to be seen as the reasonable one, not too hot and not too cold. Determined to keep the high political ground and be seen as a fiscal conservative, he makes a lot of cuts that are really bad in my view. I don't get any Democrat who is willing to cut heating assistance for the poor, for example. His insistence on a domestic discretionary spending freeze will mean very lean times for a great many programs that are a great benefit to poor and middle-income Americans. However, there are also plenty of good things in his budget. He does invest heavily in education and infrastructure programs, two absolutely critical things that both create good jobs in the short run and dramatically help our economy and society in the long run. And he does cut the deficit by embracing at least a modest amount of progressive taxation: ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in 2013, ending some other tax breaks for the wealthy, a very modest tax on the biggest banks (Obama is proposing only a $30 billion tax on these banks when a small financial transactions tax would raise $150 billion and discourage speculative trading), and taking away tax loopholes and subsidies for oil companies. All of that is good, although a truly progressive budget would go a lot further in raising taxes on the wealthiest companies and individuals because that is where the money is in this era when the wealthiest 1 percent of our society has so much more income and wealth than the rest of us.
Obama has a very centrist budget message: I'm cutting the domestic budget, but not as much as the Republicans; I'm cutting a little bit out of the military budget; I'm raising some taxes on the wealthy, oil companies, and big banks, but not by very much.
Given Republican extremism on the budget, and given the mood among the American people on deficits, that kind of Most-Reasonable-Man-in-D.C. approach will probably play pretty well for at least a while. I still believe, though, that in order to be successful in the two-year fight with these Republicans, given the weakness of the economy, Obama will need to shift the dialogue from who is more reasonable about the budget deficit to who is more willing to fight for the middle class. The economically hard-pressed people in the middle class are the ones who are the main swing voters in the next election, and they got totally hosed by the Republican budget but don't yet know it. Obama has to teach voters what the Republican budget is all about, and make very clear that he is fighting for their interests and standing on their side in these budget fights. If he can do that, 2012 doesn't look so daunting.