By now you’ve surely heard about that band of anarchic saboteurs in the nation’s capital, causing painful indigestion to its party elites, preferring rigid ideology to progress and problem solving, unwilling to accept even the most generous compromise, wild-eyed, nihilistic, destructive. I’m talking, of course, about the Democratic Party.
You wouldn’t know it from the news coverage of the past month, which has portrayed the president as a victim of screeching, clawing, Tea Party hordes. But consider the recent stance taken by the AFL-CIO, the mega-union and Democrat mega-donor, on the subject of entitlements. “We are opposed to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits cuts. Period,” Damon Silvers, the union’s policy director, told the Washington Post. “There will be no cover for members of either party who vote for such a thing.”
The issue of entitlements threatens to pull the center-left coalition apart at the seams. Earlier this year, the left-wing groups Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and MoveOn.org teamed up to apply the pressure. “To be clear, any Democrat who votes to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits is asking for a primary,” said Ilya Sheyman of MoveOn. The Wall Street Journal more recently reported that progressives are trying to stymie the newly formed bipartisan budget committee from reaching a deal that would affect entitlements. “The president is about to run into a major base problem if he tries to do this,” portended Rep. Keith Ellison.
How inflexible is the liberal position on entitlements? Even modest reforms like chaining Social Security’s consumer price index have incited rabid opposition. This despite the fact that chained CPI only saves the Social Security program $127 billion over the next decade — hardly a panacea — and it raises about $100 billion in new tax revenue. But it doesn’t matter. Any attempt to curb entitlements is a dead letter on the left. And don’t even think about touching the retirement age.
This headstrong attitude extends well beyond entitlement spending. Back during the debt ceiling fight of early 2011, Republicans challenged Senate Democrats to take their best shot at the federal budget. Democrats came back with the laughable and insulting figure of $6 billion — out of a total requested budget of $3.8 trillion — which “pushed this to the limit,” according to a garments-rending Dick Durbin. The left is constantly looking for ways to repeal sequestration, the first real deficit reduction we’ve had in decades. And of course, Democrats demand that every debt ceiling increase be “clean,” as though attaching spending cuts were an act of defilement.
Intransigence is supposed to be a Tea Party fad, and in some ways it is. Groups like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund have demanded that Republicans stop compromising and threatened them with that ever-potent bogey: a primary challenge. But Democrats have an intransigent element within their base too — progressive activists who view any reduction of government as an act of heresy.
Political movements become intransigent when they believe that compromise will yield dire consequences down the road. And so it is for both conservatives and liberals right now. The Tea Party — rightly — believes that the debt needs to be immediately addressed in order to prevent serious economic damage, which requires a rollback of government. Modern progressivism — wrongly — regards addressing social ills through state action as the entire point of politics; any significant reduction of government directly threatens what it imagines to be the social contract. There’s little wiggle room there, on either side.
Centrists and moderates abhor this sort of political eschatology. Bloomberg recently editorialized against Republicans who “speak in more apocalyptic terms about the national debt,” clucking that “politics is impossible without compromise.” But how does one talk about massive, unsustainable debt without mentioning its unhappy ending? And how are conservatives supposed to find consensus with those who not only don’t think the debt is a problem, but have decided that the solution is more government spending? You can’t extend an olive branch across an intellectual chasm that wide.
Chris Matthews can spend hours pining for the days of cordiality between Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan that never actually existed, but that’s not how it’s going to work this time. Today’s politics are defined by disagreement. Republicans and Democrats have irreconcilable values from which spring different goals that must be accomplished to avert catastrophe. It’s a clash and it’s potent enough to turn even the quotidian business of passing a continuing resolution into a fight over priorities.
Conservatives should learn a lesson from this. After the ill-fated government shutdown, it’s tempting to think that the GOP should stay out of the trenches for a while. And while Republicans need to be tactically smarter, they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they can get anything done through belly laughs and back slaps. You can’t compromise when the other political party is intractable.
There’s no question that conservatives were routed on Capitol Hill this month. But there’s also no question that the two major reductions in government that have happened during the Obama administration — the budget cuts of 2011 and sequestration — were both won after grueling political battles. Even if the GOP wins control of the Senate next year, it will still face an aggressive president who’s proven himself willing to use every lever of his office to fight Republicans.
They’re deluding themselves if they think they won’t have to fight back.