In the aftermath of the spectacular shellacking that Mitt Romney gave the President in the first debate, there was much handwringing in liberal circles. Critics on the left side of the spectrum couldn’t believe how Mr. Obama let Romney prevaricate so boldly and wildly as he hammered away at the President’s record while simultaneously and stunningly repackaging himself as a centrist unrecognizable to those of us who were paying attention to Mitt’s rightward tilt during the primary season and the obvious implications of his plutocratic agenda.
But hey, it worked! Now the Rombot is neck and neck with the face of hope in the polls and progressives have been forced to ponder the real possibility of a Romney/Ryan victory, a horror that had seemed to be getting less and less likely until Obama showed up and played the listless corporate Democratic technocrat with low T to Romney’s perky plutocrat on a crazy Viagra binge. The result: perky plutocracy won and now it’s nervous time even after Joe Biden’s frantic full court press attack on Paul Ryan in the Vice Presidential debate.
While there is certainly much to be worried about, it has less to do with style and more to do with Obama’s core vision. On this note, the most important and insightful analysis came before the first debate not after it. Paul Krugman in “The Real Referendum” presciently noted that the President and other prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton have become smitten with referencing their fondness for the timeless wisdom of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.
Obama has taken to doing so because his team thinks that by proving they are willing to make a “grand bargain” on the budget, they will lure more independents with their reasonable approach and show the Republicans in Congress to be the bunch of lunatic obstructionists that they are. The problem with this, as Krugman points out, is that it’s bad politics and horrible policy.
If the election is turned into a referendum on the legacy of the New Deal and who will better protect Social Security and Medicare, the Democrats win hands down. But, if Obama listens to too many “beltway insiders,” he can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by returning to his failed political strategy of 2011 and promising to renew this quest for a “grand bargain” and “officially endorsing Simpson Bowles, the budget proposal issued by the co-chairman of his deficit commission.”
Krugman gives three reasons why this is not wise: 1) jobs, not the debt, are our most pressing problem; 2) we don’t have an “entitlements problem” but rather a “health cost problem” and to cede that point to the right is a losing rather than a winning strategy; and 3) “despite the bizarre reverence it inspires in Beltway insiders — the same people, by the way, who assured us that Paul Ryan was a brave truth-teller — the fact is that Simpson-Bowles is a really bad plan, one that would undermine some key pieces of our safety net. And if a re-elected president were to endorse it, he would be betraying the trust of the voters who returned him to office.”
And if you don’t think Krugman is right, you need only to look to Europe where the embrace of austerity measures has actually harmed the economy and done much to foster social unrest.
Krugman’s spot-on analysis was echoed in a Huffington Post piece by Richard Eskow, “The Real Incumbent in Tonight’s Debate is ‘the Plutocracy,’” that also ran before the debate. In it Eskow noted that Obama was winning in the pre-debate polls largely because voters trusted him more than Romney to protect Medicare: “Today voters trust Obama more than Romney on Medicare, by decisive margins. They’re not connecting his ‘Simpson Bowles’ rhetoric with the plan of the same name, which is designed to trigger sharp Medicare cuts in future years.”
But perhaps, during a debate where he once again mentioned Simpson-Bowles as a model while decrying the obstructionists in Congress who just wouldn’t let him give them what they wanted, Obama managed to blow it. What he gave us was an uninspiring technocratic version of austerity lite, and he seemed totally unmanned by the shameless lying and mythmaking of the perky plutocrat who’ll say just about anything to win.
It was a depressing moment that revealed why our politics are presently so demoralizing to so many people. At base, we have a choice between a neoliberal Democratic economic agenda of austerity lite or a reinvigorated naked social Darwinism on the right. Of course, if Obama manages to actually blow it, so many other things will be sacrificed that progressives care about from the environment to women’s, immigrants’, and labor rights just to name a few. And that’s a good enough reason to hope that the President can rally and win the next two debates.
To avoid losing, Obama needs to ditch the Simpson-Bowles narrative and defend the core legacy of his party with some enthusiasm (or at least try to fake it). He should stand up for not just Medicare, but Social Security, public education, and the positive role that government can play in peoples’ lives. If not, as Eskow points out, “there are worrisome signs for Democrats. The bipartisan plutocratic agenda is translating into reduced voter enthusiasm that could seriously wound their prospects.” And, trust me, folks don’t get “fired up and ready to go” for the politics of scarcity.
As I have noted before, despite whatever problems progressives might have with the President, Obama losing means rolling back the twentieth century. So, please, Mr. President, for the country’s sake, ditch the Simpson-Bowles baloney for your best imitation of FDR in tomorrow’s debate.