The Kidnappers Guide to Negotiating a Budget (or Why We Need an Independent Non-Party Movement)

Richard Eskow

Oh, Democrats, Democrats, Democrats. Your party’s symbol’s an ass – a word that was on John Boehner’s lips this week, and maybe some other people’s too.

Here’s how it went down: First House Republicans proposed $32 billion in cuts. The President offered $6.5 billion. The House passed a bill cutting $60billion. Then the Tea Party demanded $100 billion. Now we’re told that everybody has agreed to a “compromise” number: $33 billion.

That’s just one billion more than the Republicans in Congress originally demanded. Way to negotiate, Democrats!

That’s why we need an independent movement that will fight for the public’s best interests.

Put up your hands and fight like a gentleman, sir!

In the bloodbath that is modern American politics, the courtly Dems still want to fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules. In the budget battle, they’ve once again put up their dukes for a polite “bout of fisticuffs” while their opponents pummel them with knives, clubs, brass knuckles, numchucks, AK-47′s, and tactical nuclear weapons.

The imagery’s just a figure of speech, of course.

The outcome to a fight like that is predictable: You get your ass kicked. That’s exactly what the Republicans said they’ve got in mind for Democrats—and they were not just using a figure of speech. From The Washington Post:

“If we stick together and keep the pressure on the Democrats, we’re going to win this fight,” Boehner told assembled Republicans, according to the source. “We’re gonna kick their ass.”

This capped months of increasingly hostile and warlike rhetoric from the GOP, accompanied by repeated threats to shut down the government and potentially cripple an already wounded economy.

Hey, we like civility as much as the next guy (and he’s a very nice guy.) But this isn’t working. Obama had already proposed billions in cuts—including cuts to a program that help poor people in the Northeast pay their heating bills in the winter— only to be told by the House GOP leadership that it was “not a serious attempt to get our fiscal house in order.”

Meanwhile someone “close” to Boehner was delivering the threats: “He’s not going to be forced into a bad deal, or sell out his principles or his members, because a government shutdown is the only other alternative.”

The Democratic response: Sir, I beseech you to put down that shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile and fight like a gentleman!

One-Sided Conversation

The GOP kept escalating both its rhetoric and its demands, ostensibly to satisfy people like the “few hundred” Tea Party supporters who carried signs saying things like “extreme spending requires extreme cuts.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Administration’s proposed budget plan, cuts and all, “outrageous” and “nonsense.”

How did the Democrats respond to their ass-kicking opponents? The President said that “both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts.”

“That’s why I think it’s going to be important for us to have a conversation,” the President added, “after we get the short-term budget done, about how do we really tackle the problem in a comprehensive way.” (By “the problem,” he meant government spending, not massive unemployment or the mortgage crisis.)

That’s called “buying into your opponent’s frame.”

This surrender in the war of ideas means the Democrats are missing golden opportunities to point out their opponents’ weaknesses. When Republicans spout utter economic babble, as when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs,” the Democrats have no coherent response. How can they, after accepting the GOP’s basic premise by offering spending cuts of their own?

That’s how it always goes these days: Democrats bring the “prudence” and the “conversation.” Republicans bring the pain.

Guess who wins?

Choices, Not Cuts

Of course, the Republicans aren’t really “cutting spending,” and they’re certainly not “reducing the deficit.” They’re shifting wealth to the wealthy from the rest of us, and they’re moving billions of dollars of it with every one of these moves. It’s true that the budget they passed last month gutted aid to Head Start, environmental programs, grants and loans for college, food for hungry children, and also called for cuts to everything from law enforcement to national security, from Head Start to financial regulation, from public safety to disaster prevention and relief.

But they’re the same party that just forced Democrats to concede to an extended tax break – one that will save $133 billion for the wealthiest five million Americans. (4.8 million, if you don’t like rounding up.)

So they’ve managed to cut $33 billion. That’s money that won’t go to kids in Head Start, school lunches, or opportunities for middle-class kids to go to college. And it won’t be used to protect you from criminals, oil spills, hurricanes, nuclear meltdowns, and God knows what else. But those cuts are less than one-fourth of what the GOP just gave away to the wealthiest five million of us.

The GOP is not the party of “deficit reduction.” It’s the party that’s gutting the middle class and suffocating the poor to further enrich the already wealthy. Republicans determined to strip the middle class of wealth and opportunity, and the neediest among us of needed services and a chance to escape poverty. And threats of a shutdown show that they’re determined to do it, as Malcolm X put it, “by any means necessary.”

But while they’re whaling on Democrats for their “unseriousness,” the Democrats seem too well-mannered to point that out the the American people.

Not all of them, of course. Some are talking directly, including an increasing blunt (and increasingly effective) Harry Reid. Reid said today that ““Not a single child, not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single nurse, not a single police officer, not a single senior led us into this recession … punishing innocent bystanders will not lead us to a recovery.”

A little more rhetoric like that and a person could believe that we have a two-party system in this country.

Boehner the Magnificent

We’re told that the latest deal for $33 billion in cuts includes no specifics on what will be cut. It’s a target number, with the details to be negotiated later.

Old Tonight show fans will remember Johnny Carson as “Karnak the Magnificent,” a psychic who could answer a question before it was asked. We have our answer – “$33 million” – before we’ve asked the question: Which programs can be “prudently” trimmed?

In other words, this isn’t the thoughtful review of government expenditures that the President promised. It’s a capitulation, one whose very premise is that government spending of any kind is bad and should be reduced.

Advantage: Republicans.

How to kidnap yourself without really trying

Through some combination of artifice and luck, the GOP leadership and its Tea Party wing have worked out a terrific routine: The leadership holds the entire government hostage by threatening to blow it up, much the same the way 1970′s-era radicals threatened to blow up planes if they weren’t given cash and safe passage out of the country. But in this case, even while the negotiations are underway, some other kidnappers show up and raise the ante.

It works. The “kidnappers” got everything they originally demanded (plus $1 billion more.)

Mel Brooks fans (and who isn’t?) will remember the scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little takes himself hostage. That’s a pretty good image for the Republican budget strategy, too: Give in to our demands or our party will lose its base!

Cleavon Little’s strategy only succeeded because his opponents were very, very … how do we say this? … gullible. Once again the advantage goes to the Republicans.

Bad Cop, Worse Cop

A few people have described the interplay between the right-wing Mr. Boehner and the even farther-right Tea Party contingent as a “good cop/bad cop” routine. But that’s not the right choice of words. What we really have here is a “bad cop/incredibly bad, on-the-take-and-out-of-control-cop” routine – and it’s not as staged as the “good cop, bad cop” language might suggest.

The strength of the Tea Party voting base is that some Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, really believe they might abandon the GOP. Sure, the GOP’s playing some head games, too. But the Tea Party movement’s independent enough to retain some negotiating power with the Republican leadership – and to make Democrats believe that Boehner can’t offer them anything more.

Compare that to the behavior of many progressives since the 2008 election. On issue after issue, too many organizations and individuals have preferred to either applaud the Democrats prematurely, or to remain silent when their voices were needed. The two major legislative intiatives of the past two years, health reform and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, could have been significantly stronger (and, according to polls, significantly more popular) if progressives had kept the pressure on the Democrats during the legislative process – and been the “bad cop” in the negotiation process.

Except, of course, that these “bad cops” would have been doing good and popular things.

Winning

But we don’t want to be overly harsh or leave the wrong impression: The progressive movement has stood up and fought for its principles several times over the last couple of years, and successfully. Without its efforts, reports say that the President would have announced his intention to reduce Social Security benefits in the State of the Union speech. And while progressives could have fought harder and arguably won a better health care bill, the movement was able to obtain funding for community health clinics and insert other valuable provisions into the bill.

On financial reform, left and right were able to join together and win concessions on auditing the Federal Reserve. Pressure from the left also brought out the best in a number of Senate Republicans, including Tom Coburn, during the financial reform debate. Provisions on too-big-to-fail and the Volcker rule went much farther than they were expected to, thanks to an active and invigorated base.

The positions that progressives have fought for, inside and outside the Democratic Party, aren’t “progressive” at all, at least in this sense: They’re strongly supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, by people who consider themselve “left,” “right,” “center,” and “independent” – and even by Tea Party members. (See here and here.)

The lesson? There’s an urgent need for an independent movement – one that’s progressive in nature but unafraid to make alliances across the political spectrum to push for causes that are supported by the majority of people of all party affiliations: reining in the big banks, protecting Social Security, and greater tax fairness.

Shutdown: The Sequel

Well, at least we’ve got a budget deal, right? They’ve agreed on a number and that will prevent a government shutdown. Right?

Wrong. Boehner said today there’s no deal yet. That means the GOP is still threatening to shut down the government – unless the $33 billion worth of cuts is performed according to its directions.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to,” said Boehner. So the Democrats have now gone on record, through Vice President Biden, as saying they’ll accept the $33 billion figure. And what did they get in return? Nothing. The kidnappers got the plane, and the hostages, and the money – and now they’re demanding more.

Way to negotiate, Democrats!

And that’s why we need an independent movement that will fight for the public’s best interests.

This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project.

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