Where Do Progressives Go From Here?

No doubt about it. There is widespread disappointment among progressives at the outcome of the debt ceiling deal. So where do we go from here?
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No doubt about it. There is widespread disappointment among progressives at the outcome of the debt ceiling deal. So where do progressives go from here?

Right now in Europe politicians are struggling to avoid default that would lead their economies to collapse. In the United States, radical right Republicans manufactured the same kind of crisis that Europeans are desperately trying to avoid, and threatened to blow the entire economy to smithereens if they didn't get their way.

Their tactic worked. Turns out in a game of chicken the guy who is most reckless has a huge advantage.

The president and Democratic leadership did a valiant job ameliorating the worst features the deal. But in the end the negotiation was only about the size of the ransom.

The deficit reduction deal that Ronald Regan negotiated with Democrat House Speaker Tip O'Neal in 1984 was 82% new revenue and only 18% cuts in expenditures. Clinton's deal that lead to surpluses as far as the eye could see in the 1990's was 62% new taxes -- mainly on the wealthy -- and 38% cuts. This deal was 100% cuts.

The general consensus among economists is that the impact of the cuts will be to damage the already-weak economic recovery. The deal included no short-term stimulus.

There were four bright spots.

First, for the first time in many years many of the cuts in spending came from the Department of Defense -- although the final plan did not count the $1.2 trillion in reduced spending that will happen as America ends its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These, of course, are actual cuts in spending that were included in Senator Reid's plan that Republicans refused to embrace.

Second, the "trigger" that creates automatic cuts if the new bipartisan joint committee fails to agree on additional ways to reduce the deficit, exempts Medicaid, low income programs, Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Third, most of the cuts in important Federal programs don't go into effect until 2013. That means they won't have as much negative short-term impact on the economy. But just as importantly, it means that a new Democratic Congress could roll them back before they do long-term damage.

Finally, of course, the deal did -- at least partially -- disarm the right wing econo- terrorists for the balance of this congress. It not only extends the debt limit beyond 2012, it also includes agreement on spending levels for the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years. That last point will likely prevent their once-again threatening to shut down the government if their demands aren't met.

Unfortunately the deal leaves them with one final weapon: the bi-partisan joint committee process. Under the terms of the legislation, a group of twelve Members of Congress -- equally split between the two parties -- will try to come up with a package that would cut the deficit by another $1.2 to $1.5 trillion over the next decade. If it can muster a majority, then its proposals would be "fast tracked" to votes in the House and Senate with no amendments and no filibuster in the Senate.

That would mean that if one Democratic member of the committee agrees to support, say, serious cuts in Medicare and Social Security -- with or without new revenue -- that proposal would go for an up or down vote. If the Democratic majority -- of only 53 votes in the Senate -- didn't hold, then the President would have to veto the measure or it would become law. There is clearly danger here.

Some have argued that the "trigger" that would impose automatic cuts (but not in Social Security, low income programs, Medicaid or Medicare benefits) would be onerous enough to force Republicans to deal -- and to agree on more revenue. I suppose I could be wrong -- but I think that the odds that the Republican House will agree to new revenue are about million to one.

In any case, the existence of this new joint committee creates the necessity for the first of three major progressive priorities coming out of the borrowing limit battle:

Priority #1: As the joint committee begins its process, progressives must organize a determined, relentless campaign to prevent Congress from making cuts in Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

We know exactly where the Republicans are going here. The Republican budget would eliminate Medicare and replace it with a system of vouchers for private insurance that raises the out of pocket health care expenses of seniors by $6,000 per year. They would raise the retirement age for Social Security, and turn Medicaid into block grants that would eliminate the guarantee of health care for the poor, and nursing home care for seniors and the disabled. And they would do it all to prevent millionaires and billionaires from having to contribute a dime to deficit reduction.

Progressives need to be just as determined and unmovable in our defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as the Republicans were in defending millionaires and billionaires from tax increases. Let's face it, their tough advocacy for the rich worked. We need to mount a national campaign to demand that Congress "just say no" to cuts in the "big three."

And let's remember we absolutely have the high political ground. Over 70% of Americans oppose cuts in Socials Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- including a huge chunk of Republicans.

Priority #2: We have to refocus the political conversation directly to the issue that the vast majority of Americans really care about: jobs.

To do that we have to organize a campaign to promote an emergency jobs bill that will rapidly put millions of Americans to work -- doing work that critically needs to be done.

And let's be clear. Putting people to work is not an intractable problem that is mysterious. For about $220 billion you could put over two million Americans to work for two years -- and massively lower the unemployment rate.

I'm not talking about "incentivizing" companies, or cutting tax rates, or providing "stimulus." I'm talking about funding specific job slots at state and local governments and the National Parks. I'm talking about hiring people directly, the way Roosevelt did it during the last great American jobs emergency.

You'd fund specific jobs -- the same way that Clinton did for the 100,000 cops in the COPS program in the 1990's. You'd have a teacher corps, a school improvement corps, a parks improvement corps. You'd fund slots for fire fighters, and home health care workers.

You would create jobs by actually creating jobs. And you could fund it by raising the tax rates on millionaires and billionaires.

But, you're saying, the Republican House won't pass that.

We need to propose a concrete, practical jobs program that is completely understandable and directly addresses the number one issue on the minds of ordinary Americans -- and then we need to make our case to the American people.

It's what they care most about, and it's what we must do now to get out of the Republican "deficits are all that matters" frame and back into the "all that really matters is what will create jobs an economic growth" frame. That's the ground where progressives win -- we have to take the debate there -- now.

Priority #3: Elections matter.

Progressives took a great deal of ground during the first two years of the Obama Administration. Then the empire struck back and we have been defending that turf ever since. We cannot be deflected from preparing the most robust counter offensive in the history of American politics next November.

If you are unhappy with the results of the deficit ceiling fight, just think of what the right would do to America with Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry as President and a Republican House and Senate. That would be just the appetizer for a right wing orgy.

They would destroy Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They would go after women's rights, continue the assault on science, and legitimate intolerance.

They would outsource what remains of our manufacturing jobs, repeal health care for all, eliminate any restraint on Wall Street's greed, destroy unions and allow millionaires and billionaires to plunder what is left of America's middle class.

And if you think they won't -- that they will show any restraint -- just remember how they threatened to throw America into default if they didn't get their way.

The debit ceiling battle must serve as a warning -- a wake up call. There is time to stop them. Americans oppose cuts in Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. They support increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. They support a government that actually produces new jobs. They support collective bargaining. They oppose economic terrorism. But we have to stand up straight and prepare for battle.

The only way to deal with people like these is to defeat them at the polls. As Ed Schultz says every night: "Let's get to work."

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.

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