Republican Fire-Eaters

Political cartoon from Puck, showing various political types, including the "fire-eater" (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In politics, as in the circus world, a fire-eater is a performer who will swallow fire to attract a crowd and earn a living.  This aptly describes the tawdry crowd of grand-standing Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government today.

Their behavior resembles nothing so strongly as that of radical pro-slavery men, who, before the Civil War, threatened angrily to secede from the Union whenever the federal government wasn’t going their way.  Antebellum fire-eaters pretended to be great patriots and high-minded constitutionalists while actually serving the retrograde interests of a minority.

So it is with today’s right-wing Republicans, whose aversion to President Obama and health-care reform is so intense as to drive them along a reckless and self-defeating course.  Ted Cruz is, if anything, more self-serving and sophomoric than leading pro-slavery apologists–men such as William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama or Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina–whose parochial defense of slave-holding and states’ rights marred careers as distinguished as any in their day.  In the end, these men could not love the United States more than they loved holding slaves, leading them to sacrifice true patriotism to an ignoble cause.

By now it has dawned on many Americans that those in Congress intent on derailing Obamacare at all costs are more like demagogues than patriots.  In their stubborn attempt to thwart the inclinations of a national majority, stand in the way of progress, and sabotage the federal government, Cruz and his ilk recall the secessionists whose noblest vision was to arouse local populations to follow them.  Intent on justifying their contempt of the federal government with high-toned ideas, the first fire-eaters used every conceivable means they could to oppose the federal government and the will of the majority, ultimately succeeding in persuading their fellow-citizens to withdraw from the Union and take up arms.

So it is with the current Republican spoilers, laboring unceasingly to deprive Americans of access to the new ACA-mandated health-insurance plans.  Don’t they realize that most Americans are tired of extremism, tired of factions intent only on undoing?  Republican fire-eaters would be better off quitting the circus and getting down to the sober, un-sensational business of governing.

Image: A 1900 political cartoon from Puck showing various American political types, including the fire-eater at right, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Want to tell the fire-eaters what you think of their actions?

Why Democrats Should Embrace Simpson-Bowles

After writing about the federal budget the other day, I experienced what can only be called “a tea-party moment.”  By which I mean, a momentary but passionate longing for an end to deficit spending.  It doesn’t have to happen tomorrow, and it couldn’t have happened yesterday, but we have to have a plan for getting the federal budget back on a sustainable footing.  Democrats—all Democrats, as a party—need to embrace this goal.  If they can lead on this issue and bring the electorate to see how deficit reduction can be accomplished responsibly, they’ll find themselves enjoying renewed dominance nationally.  Endorsing the widely respected bipartisan recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission is the best way.

What’s clear from the budget graphic I wrote about last week is that the entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—, are growing at annual rates that will continue to put the squeeze on the discretionary spending that Congress determines.  That’s why deficit spending will continue, and probably at a rate much higher than the $900 billion that President Obama has been proposing.  As the mandated portions of federal spending increase, there will be less and less scope for spending that addresses topical but often urgent contemporary needs.

To the extent that Democrats in the House and Senate have cast themselves as defenders of the status quo when it comes to entitlements, they have taken up an untenable, self-immolating position that will weaken them as a party.  Most Americans understand that the structure of entitlements will have to change, and, if they don’t already, they can be made to.  Today’s entitlements are simply too good to be true.  Originally intended to aid the ill and elderly who would otherwise be destitute or cut off from care, entitlements must be preserved to fulfill their original function of assisting the most needy.  But these programs must be modified in light of experience and changing social and economic conditions.  Social welfare is an important principle that we can best honor by re-tailoring these programs to fit the 21st century.  Simpson-Bowles, which calls for substantial but gradual changes to these programs, shows us the way.  It may not be the perfect plan, but you know what?  Its huge merit is that it was arrived at, and has already been vetted in, a bipartisan way.  With its provisions for thorough-going tax reform and modifications to the sacred cow of Social Security, it represents the deep sort of compromise that can be liberating.

The approach of the Democratic convention and the November election provide Democrats with a golden opportunity.  Look at the Republican primary contest and ask yourself, what’s holding together the Republican Party?  The alarming strength of candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and before them Rick Perry attests to the party’s troubling divisions.  Were I a moderate Republican, I would be desperately seeking an alternative to a party whose constituents are proving themselves to be so provincial, chauvinistic, and bigoted.  Now is the time for Democrats to take the lead.  Democrats need to become champions of efficient, compassionate government—not the backward-looking defenders of a lost society that they often seem.  Making deficit reduction and tax reform their rallying cries would leave Republicans without productive ground to occupy.  The Democrats would win many converts among disaffected Republicans and the unaligned.  Democrats cannot continue to defend government spending simply because that’s what they’re comfortable doing.

The Times this week published an amazingly convoluted analysis arguing that it has been politically necessary for President Obama to avoid acknowledging any allegiance to the deficit-reduction plan that Bowles-Simpson produced—even though his current ideas about deficit reduction mirror theirs.  The fact is: the burden of deficit reduction isn’t the President’s.  The deficit problem belongs to Congress, and Congress alone.  That’s why it’s so important that the Democratic Party as a whole take responsibility.  Take the lead.  Admit that recent economic trends give us the breathing room to tackle the deficit issue, and take up a position in the center field.  It’s not just good politics.  At bottom, it’s what’s prudent and responsible: a balanced budget—or a nearly balanced one—is what the country needs.

Help Understanding the Budget

I have trouble thinking about the federal budget.  The numbers are too big.  I have pretty good math ability, so if I have trouble with it, I suspect a lot of other people do, too.  Maybe even many of our legislators in Congress!  (I would not want to be on the budget committee.)

So I was really glad to find this cool interactive graphic on the New York Times website showing President Obama’s proposed budget for 2013.  The graphic shows all the huge and tiny (relatively tiny that is–even a tiny part of the budget can have $1 billion in funding) expenditures the government makes yearly.  The colors of the bubbles show the cuts and increases that are proposed.  There’s also an empty circle representing the size of the deficit we’re running, so you can see it in relation to the budget as a whole.

If you click on the buttons above the graph, the bubbles regroup to show the parts of spending that the budget can’t control.  Looking at the graph makes you realize that nearly 70 percent of our budget obligations are mandated, while 30 percent are discretionary.  It’s interesting to see that President Obama is asking that many discretionary parts of the budget be increased, instead of being frozen.  According to this article from US News, Congress has already established that it may run a deficit of up to $1.047 trillion in 2013.

I’m far from being a budget radical, but I can understand why people are in revolt about the size and complexity of the government’s activities.  When you move the cursor over this picture of the government and look at the different obscure programs and how much they cost, you do start to wonder whether they are all necessary.

Click here for the graphic discussed: Four Ways to Slice President Obama’s 2013 budget.