Will conservatives have the fortitude to reinstitute fiscal sanity?
News that Congress has failed to draw a budget for the 2011 fiscal year is both unnerving to those hoping for some fiscal sanity out of Washington, as well as indicative of the type of political heat the Democrats are under. The heat shouldn’t matter – leaders are elected to lead in tough times, but the party of the left continues to count on back-dealing and payoff politics to keep itself alive in face of a 2010 midterm juggernaut – all to the detriment of fiscal health.
By refusing to make a budget, the Democrats are pledging that under no circumstances will they cut spending. This is distressing in the face of monstrous deficits and rising debt, as well as a growing natural disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and two continuous overseas wars. This doesn’t take into account the billions needed for whatever emergencies lie in the future.
It also means no end in sight to the irresponsible increases in spending by Washington that has been the hallmark throughout the financial crisis. President Obama has already chided European leaders for instigating austerity measures in the face of growing debt in favor of more stimulus. The signs are clear -- the moderate to center-right majority that makes up the American electorate must come to terms with an administration that has now moved to us closer to the socialists in profligate Europe. It must also come terms with the possibility that they will, under no circumstances, get any relief from a voracious and ever-growing government.
Understanding why Democrats won’t cut spending is to understand what it is to be a Democrat. To cut spending is to cut off their electoral livelihood. Their base is a mantra of political identity and union groups eyeing a place at the trough. Keeping these groups loyal means keeping them on the dole, and doing so means spending tax dollars.
This can include pandering of all stripes and across all levels of government, including Hilda Solis’ recent promise to illegal aliens to get them fair wages, to the pension situation in Illinois, where public employees pay around 10-percent on pensions worth over $1 million. These promises are reprehensible for a variety of reasons - the outright fiscal irresponsibility, the failure to serve the average taxpayer, and the audacity to make promises that will be near impossible to fulfill in the long term, with no concern of how to do so.
This type of mismanagement should turn off even the most ardent and entrenched public employee, but it doesn’t.
An example of what these consequences can lead to can be seen in Ohio, where officials can’t hide behind the monetary printing press or non-existent budgets. Last year Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio began cutting to meet the budget, and found himself the target of one of his most supportive groups – librarians.
The battle fit into the simple-minded press narrative that comes into play when spending cuts are made, complete with the requisite newspaper centerpieces showing sad and barren libraries, or the words of little tykes in blockquotes wondering why their libraries are being taken away.
It made for great play across the front pages across the state, and as a result, Strickland took a PR bruise from a group he could count on for support under most circumstances. Strickland, who despite a bad state economy had decent support due to a favorable base, began to lose that base and his approval plummeted at the time. This is the game of payola politics and once you quit paying, you begin to pay yourself.
The difficulty in cutting spending isn’t just laid on Democrats, who specialize in handing out money, but also felt by Republicans. No national political entity has tried to cut spending since the Republican takeover of the House in 1995. After going to battle with the Clinton administration, the government was briefly shutdown, an event that was portrayed as a type of Armageddon by the Washington press, but had no measurable impact outside of saving money. Spun wonderfully by an administration wise to the ways of public relations, the House Republicans took a beating in the polls.
It isn’t hard to see this situation reflective on the political strategies of George W. Bush, whose “compassionate conservatism” meme spelled out for everyone to read – I’m not cutting anything. Twenty years before, the Department of Education was the bane of the conservative existence. Bush made it larger. He also created a new Medicare entitlement. It doesn’t make for good conservative politics, but it does make for political expediency. These circumstances have created a situation in which a desperate economy will continuously be dragged into stagnation by the public-sector monster. Feeding the monster during good times, such as the post-war years or the mid 1990s, is of no consequence to the future. Growing the monster is good politics in the present, but bad for future fiscal stability.
Success in fighting back an ever-growing government and repairing the fiscal damage starts in the fall. Republicans can take over the House and do damage to the filibuster-proof Senate. But moving beyond victory, if it happens, and getting back to good economic health will take more than the usual shortness of fortitude displayed by the modern politician.
Republicans will be reduced to inhuman terms with any attempted spending cut. It will play out live on the news networks and the major newspapers. This will be the same battle fought in the mid-90s, only this time, the dominant press narrative will go against a cable leviathan in Fox News, a talk-radio media that has grown exponentially since then and a vibrant and virile conservative internet media.
It also means being heard by the public through the chants and jeers of public sector unions, interest groups and anyone else with a stake to lose. Reaction may not sink to the level of Greece, where a bank was fire-bombed during a union protest, but it will get bad. It should also be interesting to see if these new protests are handled in the same manner by our leaders and press as the Tea Party.
The battle will be an important one, with stakes riding into the 2012 presidential election. Even more important, it will decide whether the American public will accept a Congress that cuts them off the trough. Here’s hoping they do.