Austerity Is a Political Loser for Either Party

Washington Republicans, with their obstructionism and worship of austerity as the answer to all of our economic ills, are creating an opportunity for the Democrats to offer a more appealing alternative (if they're not too lame or bought off to seize the initiative). By giving the country nothing to think about except budget cuts and shredding the social safety net the Republicans make it pretty easy for Democratic politicians to draw a contrast. They've become what the former Republican vice president, Spiro Agnew, might call "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Even a minimal "vision" of an America that can still accomplish something would appear to be far more uplifting than the austerity snake oil the current crop of Republican politicians keep pushing. The more austerity becomes a "bi-partisan" project the more it undermines not only President Obama's "brand" but the Democrats' ability to draw contrasts between their party and the Mitch McConnells, Paul Ryans, and John Boehners of this world.

On Fox News and right-wing talk radio there's often commentary about President Ronald Reagan's legacy. Right-wingers revere the Gipper for what is often a mythological set of accomplishments. But one thing that Reagan had that the current crop of Republican sourpusses don't have is an outlook that exuded confidence in America's future. He ceaselessly drilled home the idea that America's best days lay ahead.

Back in July 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television and gave America a pessimistic view of itself. He outlined the problems confronting the nation: "It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." The press dubbed it Carter's "malaise" speech (though he never used the word), and it was an unmitigated political disaster. He seemed dour and tendentious while his language exuded an air of hopelessness.

A month later, Carter appointed Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve Board who implemented a series of sharp increases in the federal funds interest rate, which is the rate the central banks charge other financial institutions. By the spring of 1980, this rate stood at 17.6 percent, and thirty-year mortgage rates climbed to 13.7 percent. Carter was seeking reelection in a year when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had a -0.3 percent growth rate and inflation stood at 12.5 percent. The severity of the crisis led Volcker to put the economy through shock therapy. The collapse of the consumer economy dovetailed perfectly to wreak maximum political damage on Carter and the Democrats. And the President seemed incapable of giving the American people even the symbolic sense things would improve.

Carter's lurch rightward in 1979 in domestic and foreign policy demoralized Democratic voters and even sparked a brief challenge in the primaries from Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy representing the progressive wing of the party. (The 50.7 percent voter turnout in 1980 was the lowest in thirty-two years.)

Contrast this dreary set of circumstances with what the Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan, said upon receiving his party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in Detroit: "The American people, the most generous on earth, who created the highest standard of living, are not going to accept the notion that we can only make a better world for others by moving backwards ourselves."

After the election nearly 40 percent of voters told pollsters they would have voted for any challenger simply because he wasn't Carter. Reagan won with 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter's 44 percent, and handily whipped him in the Electoral College, 489 to forty-nine. (A third party candidate, John Anderson, whose efforts tended to help Reagan, took 7 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.) The Reagan-Bush team won by 8,423,115 votes, and carried forty-four states. (Palermo, p. 10)

The purpose of this little history lesson is to show that when a national politician comes off as defeatist there arises an opening for an opponent that sets forth a more optimistic vision. This political phenomenon can work with either party playing the role of Debbie Downer.

The Republicans today, with their dreary Hobbesian messaging and lack of imagination, have become the Jimmy Carters to the Democrats' Reagan (if they choose to take advantage of the growing Positivity Gap). The leaders of the contemporary Republican Party claim to have learned from Reagan, yet they've missed the most important aspect of his political success: exuberant optimism in the face of terrible economic conditions.

Sometimes I think American society is like a stubborn mule that won't move until it's struck with a blunt object on the nose; a big dumb animal that refuses to budge until something inherently shocking and alarming hits it on the head like a two-by-four. The Sandy Hook Elementary School murders of twenty 6-year-old children opened up a "conversation" about the carnage wrought by guns in America; and the arrest of the U.S. military's top sexual assault officer for sexual assault (along with the miraculous freeing of the three women held as sex slaves in Cleveland), opened another "conversation" on rape and sexual predation in American society. At some point we must have a serious "conversation" about whether tearing apart every federal program that helps working people while funneling endless taxpayer cash into the pockets of the very rich and corporations is the direction we want to go as a country.

As a graduate student I had the good fortune to study with William E. Leuchtenburg, who is a thoughtful historian of 20th Century America. My take away from his book of essays on presidential administrations, In the Shadow of FDR, (which he updates each time a new president arrives), is that Democratic presidents should tread carefully when it comes to straying too far away from the path that Franklin D. Roosevelt set the party on 80 years ago. Being duplicitous in undermining bedrock New Deal programs such as Social Security never serves the Democrats well politically. The lesson for President Obama is to stop moving in the direction that the austerity mongers want him to go.

Every time Obama embraces the false premises of austerity, such as the "chained-CPI" for Social Security or talks about limitations and stasis he undermines the most compelling part of what he ran on in 2008 and 2012: a sense of hopefulness for the future and the idea that we can make progress on improving the lives of ordinary people.

In 1980 and 1984, Reagan won the majority of new voters, people 18-24, computer users, and students; the same demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and 2012. How could the oldest President ever to be elected, a staunch right-wing conservative, become the candidate of choice for the nation's young people? It relates to what President George Herbert Walker Bush famously called "the vision thing."

The last two years of Carter's presidency was a total letdown. He spoke about America's shortcomings, lower living standards, belt tightening, and even a "crisis of the spirit." Reagan, in contrast, promised a better set of options. With him at the helm, he assured us, it would be "morning in America." Reagan's rhetoric could be hypocritical and corny but it seemed a lot more encouraging than the dour future Carter was dishing out.

Each time Obama and other Democrats move towards the GOP on budget priorities they bring the party down, and make it more difficult to draw distinctions between the Republican austerity freaks and those of us who still believe this nation has a chance of building a brighter future.

President Obama must stop handing out "sweeteners" to Republicans, such as a "chained" consumer price index for Social Security and Medicaid cuts, in an attempt to lure them into a "grand bargain," that is neither "grand" nor a "bargain." Let the wholly unappealing faces of the Republican Party, the Debbie Downer caucus, spout off like Jimmy Carter did in 1979 about "limitations" and what we cannot do as a nation. Let them talk up Pete Peterson's wet dream and Simpson-Bowles (the poster boys for the sourpuss crowd). Let Paul Ryan wave around his next phony budget pamphlet and Mitch McConnell block everything in the Senate that might move the country forward. Over the course of the next few election cycles we will see if the country is willing to choose the party of grumpy old men over a party with a more hopeful vision for the future.