As the saying goes, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Sometimes, cliché though it sounds, a cliché is just what's needed to express a sentiment. And so it goes in the beleaguered relationship between the Democratic Party and grassroots progressive organizations.
Last week, the particularly beleaguered Harry Reid tacked an amendment onto a jobs and education bill that would expand funding for teachers and increase federal matching funds for state Medicaid expenses but would pay for the spending by cutting food stamps. The bill, with the amendment in tact, achieved cloture this morning --- meaning that enough Senators voted to stop debating the bill and move forward to actually vote yeah or nay on the legislation.
But for once, the most interesting aspect of this legislation is not the horse trading to win a single Republican vote in a barely Democratic Senate. What's most interesting is the contours of the corner into which Democrats backed progressive advocates.
Admittedly, progressive activists are accustomed to internecine battles, but usually these pit one arguably distinct interest group against another. When asked to sideline the needs of, say, poor black folks or undocumented immigrants and prioritize the needs of working class white folks, unfortunately few groups in Washington bat an eye. As a whole, us liberals tend to practice a "lowest hanging fruit politics" -- which often translates to helping the higher placed fruit on the socioeconomic scale and letting the rest of the bunch rot.
For most liberals, then, the choice to support health care reform that would help mostly white, working class folks, while conceding to bars on access to abortions that would hurt mostly poor women of color was a no-brainer. But with the food stamps versus teachers and state aid tradeoff, it's hard to make a case for the low hanging fruit of funding teachers and health care while denying poor people food -- food like fruit.
Behind the scenes, progressive activists weren't sure what to do. Some usually united coalitions bickered, with parts mobilizing to support the teacher and health care aid while their colleagues waved their arms in dismay that these leaders were, in effect, supporting cuts to food stamps. Accordingly, many progressive groups did nothing at all or officially took the position of having no official position. Meanwhile, the unions had perhaps adopted the clever "don't worry" stance. According to Firedog Lake, on one strategy call, Chuck Lovelace, the Legislative Director for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), noted that since the food stamp cuts wouldn't take effect until 2015, there would be time to restore the funding.
"We intend to go back and work to restore that benefit at the appropriate time... From my union's perspective, we will go back and get that back."
Yes, because presumably we'll be in a much better position if the Republicans control one or both branches of Congress....
A progressive activist friend called me about this, frustrated feeling pinned in the middle -- by our own supposed political allies nonetheless -- and said that at least the poor kids who lose their food stamps will be able to go to school and eat paste. Indeed, while some Democrats (not to mention the oligarchic Republicans) seriously debate whether to kill the Bush era tax cuts for the richest of the super rich, we're forcing children across the nation to get their nutrients from Elmer's Glue. That is, if the schools have enough money to buy glue.
Of course, we wouldn't be in this situation if Democrats and President Obama hadn't given in to the manufactured hysteria around deficit spending. Forty prominent economists recently agreed that while fiscal deficits are certainly a long-term concern, the United States will never balance its budget if it cannot first stimulate the economy through emergency spending. That means ambitious programs to fund public jobs, including teachers but also public works projects and new economic innovation, and establish strong safety nets for those who continue to struggle in our struggling economy. Jumpstarting our economy means putting the pedal to the metal, not easing up on food stamps to give a little gas to education. And if we have to take even more money from the exceedingly wealthy in our country who have already benefited from a strong economy and government policies that helped them grow their business and wealth, it's only fair. Working class and poor Americans are already sacrificing too much in these tough times. To cut food stamps is an ugly additional blow. Instead of picking sides in a losing battle, progressives need to argue not just for revoking the Bush-era tax cuts but increasing taxes on the super rich. The rest of America needs the money. And don't worry, the super rich have plenty to eat besides paste.