Bernie Sanders may represent Vermont and have a New York accent, but right now he looks a little like a Texas Ranger. The motto for those Lone Star State lawmen -- "One Riot, One Ranger" -- comes from their legendary ability to face down a hostile crowd single-handed. Bernie just faced down something that may be even scarier that rioting cowboys in the Panhandle: a powerful Democratic chairman and his entire Committee.
Sen. Sanders isn't a Democrat (he's an Independent socialist who caucuses with them), but he has a lot to teach progressives inside and out the party about how to stand up for what's right: Detach from party leaders, hang tough, and be prepared to walk away if you can't negotiate something reasonable. He's fighting for better policies -- and ones that the public strongly supports. (Our American Majority project has more details.)
Let's hope they're paying attention across the country -- and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Card players say any hand can be a winning hand -- or a losing one. That's true in politics, too. The Republican Party has been winning games with a weak hand since 2008.
The GOP's primary budget goal hasn't changed. They want low taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and they've pursued their goal in a systematic way. First they framed deficits, rather than unemployment or economic stagnation, as our most urgent problem. Then they pushed to make sure that most of the deficit reduction comes from spending cuts, not tax increases. And they want those revenue increases to hit the middle class rather than the wealthy, by keeping the top tax rates low and targeting tax "expenditures" which support middle-class health insurance and mortgages.
They've outplayed the Democrats at every step. For two years the Democrats had the White House and solid majorities in both houses of Congress, yet the Republican minority stymied, stalemated, and weakened every initiative they proposed. Democrats from the president on down became masters at negotiating... against themselves. Time after time they made two fatal mistakes: They made it clear that they really, really wanted a deal, and they made most of their concessions before they even came to the table.
Republicans are still bluffing. The Democrats hold the Senate and the White House -- that's two out of three, at last count -- and public sentiment. But headlines nowadays always sound as if the Republicans hold equal power -- no, make that more power -- than the Democrats.
That's because they do. Their power comes from being aggressive, bidding high, and being willing to walk away -- even if "walking away" means shutting down the government. They know how to negotiate.
Case in point: Republicans would be happy with a 3:1 mix of spending cuts over tax increases. So John Boehner insisted again yesterday that they want no tax increases at all. The radical bill to dismantle Medicare, which the Republicans passed last month, is also widely seen as a "high bid" for dramatic cuts to programs for America's seniors. They're negotiating.
The president, on the other hand, gave a speech on deficits last month that was brilliant rhetorically, but accepted the Republican premise that deficits were more important than jobs or growth. And he opened by proposing the 3:1 mix that's probably the GOP's end game. Once again, Democrats folded before the first hand was dealt.
A story in the Hill today began with these words: "Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Tuesday presented a budget proposal to Senate Democrats that calls for an even balance -- 50 percent to 50 percent -- of spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit." What a pleasant surprise. That's a much more reasonable, popular, and progressive starting point than the president's -- and from centrist Senator Kent Conrad, no less.
How did that happen? As the Hill reports, "Conrad has moved his budget proposal to the left in order to gain the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an outspoken progressive on the budget panel. Sanders has called for "shared sacrifice" in reducing the deficit and wants to increase taxes on families earning over a $1 million a year." Adds the Hill:
Sanders wants Democrats to take a "hard look at corporate welfare" and argues there's "huge amounts of money to be gained by ending a number of provisions which enable corporations who make billions of dollars in profits to pay nothing in taxes."
Sanders criticized Conrad's first budget proposal, which the chairman shared with the Democratic conference last week, for not requiring more sacrifice from corporations and wealthy taxpayers to balance the budget.
Conrad has scrambled to win Sanders's support over the past week. Without his vote, Conrad can't pass a budget out of the Budget Committee, which is narrowly split between 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
Obviously this hasn't become law. Negotiations with the House haven't even started. But Bernie just changed the terms for the better.
Raising the Ante
Sen. Sanders is also reviving a bill he introduced earlier this year which imposes a 5.4% surtax on all earnings over one million dollars per year. Sen. Conrad says the Senate Budget Committee can't instruct the Senate on how to raise money. But in a compromise move, Sen. Conrad offered a 3% tax on income over a million dollars.
The Republicans may have to vote against this popular tax, and then have to explain why they'd rather cut Medicare and Social Security instead. Even if they prevail, they'll have to trade away some things they want if they hope to make it go away.
As William Shatner says in those ads, "Now you're negotiating!"
How popular is Sen. Sanders' position? As the American Majority polling page shows, 72% of people in one study favored raising taxes on income over $1 million over cutting programs, once they had the proper information. 63% believe it is totally or mostly acceptable to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for families earning over $250,000 per year. 61% support raising taxes on the wealthy to balance the budget. And solid majorities want the government to do more to create jobs.
Today's budget debate is being framed as if the president's proposal is the "left" and the Republican proposal is the "right." Actually, the president's offering a center-right plan and the GOP's offering a radical-right plan. The budget plan that most closely reflects public opinion is the one offered by the House Progressive Caucus, and that's being dismissed as coming from the 'loony left' -- even though polls show it represents the real 'center' of public opinion.
Smart economists agree that's the best approach. Nevertheless, diffident Dems keep entering these negotiations afraid to represent the public's will or best interests. That has to change.
Weekend at Bernie's
Sen. Sanders, and now Sen. Conrad, have increased the likelihood of getting a budget that more closely resembles what the public wants and needs. Sen. Sanders had to face down Sen. Conrad and the other Democrats on his Committee for a week. That took guts. He held out for the best possible deal, then compromised and settled.
Like they say: You gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em. By facing down Conrad and the other Democrats on the Committee, he did them a favor. Now they can negotiate from a stronger position. Whatever happens, they'll be able to tell the public that somebody in Washington was looking out for them.
Some of us have been arguing for a long time that the progressive movement is too attached to the Democratic Party leadership, and more of the country's elected Democrats need to join with their House colleagues and negotiate for the public's best interests and voters' preferred policies. Sen. Sanders has shown them the way.
Perhaps Mr. Sanders will have a few progressives over to his house on some nice Vermont weekend. He can flip a few burgers, tell a few stories, and then play a few games of cards with the gang. That way he can show 'em how it's done.