In a column posted at the New Republic, Ruy Teixeira points out that the current inside-the-Beltway focus on deficit reduction to the exclusion of meaningful steps to put Americans back to work makes no more sense politically than it does economically.
“The simplest explanation for Washington’s monomaniacal focus on the deficit would be that politicians are responding to a shift in priorities among voters,” Teixeira writes. “But that explanation is simply not borne out by the facts.”
He adds that while Republicans argue that when people say they want Washington to focus on jobs they mean cut spending, and that will get the private economy moving, Teixeira writes that polling does not bear that out either. “Whatever else the public may believe about deficit reduction, they clearly don’t see it as a tonic for jobs,” he writes.
Teixeira’s column reinforces the central theme of our “American Majority” project: that the public’s number one priority for the federal government is to get Americans back to work, and their chosen path for doing so does not include the budget-cutting remedies that are the centerpiece of conservative policy-making in Congress.
So if the deficit hawks aren’t doing “what the American people asked us to do,” to borrow a favorite formulation of House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional conservatives who claim a mandate for shrinking government in ways that directly harm working-class families but benefit the wealthy, then what’s going on? Teixeira concludes that these elected officials aren’t so much interested in following popular opinion as they are in manipulating it for their ends.
This clearly fits the way Republicans are handling the deficit issue: Cutting spending on government programs is at the top of their policy agenda, so it follows that they wish to keep the political and media conversation focused as much as possible on deficits. Over time, they hope the incessant hysteria will move public opinion to their side, allowing them to pass more and more of their preferred legislation. Moreover, they are betting that their unresponsiveness to the jobs issue will not hurt them because the media will mostly cover the endless battles over deficits and spending, creating a news vacuum where the public is likely, lacking other information, to blame the party that holds the presidency for inaction on jobs.
Democratic complicity in today’s deficit-obsessed political climate is less easy to understand. Democrats, one might think, would place the jobs issue at the top of their agenda and exploit the clear public opinion preference for jobs to move their policies. But the assumption that jobs tops the agenda of all Democratic politicians is likely not warranted. There is a very significant section of the Democratic Party, including many moderates but also some liberals, that is not convinced by the standard Keynesian argument that deficits, even at their current levels or higher, are not a problem in the short run, while weak demand and slow job growth definitely are. These Democrats appear to be more impressed by arguments, retailed by the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and a veritable army of editorial writers and pundits, that the country’s deficit and long-term debt problem is so severe that an immediate agreement to tackle the problem is necessary. Lacking an agreement on the debt, the argument runs, the U.S. will lose the confidence of its creditors and soon become an unstable, impoverished country. By this hysterical logic, an agreement on debt becomes far more urgent than dealing with the jobs situation.
There is a warning for both parties in this. The next time voters go to the polls, they will do a gut check on whether they, their family members or their neighbors are feeling more secure about their economic future, and assess which group of elected officials are fighting for them. Democrats failed that test in 2010. Politicians riding the deficit obsession, with its “so be it” consequences for unemployment and economic growth, are destined to fail the test in 2012.