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Friday, March 01, 2013

Alternate Universe Land

by David Atkins

A favorite trope of mine is the political alternate universe: take a scenario in which extremist Republicans are doing something awful, and imagine the press reaction if Democrats did something equivalent. Greg Sargent postulates a powerful version of this idea, imagining a world in which Mitt Romney had won the election, and Democrats refused to cave on spending cuts. He imagines the following imaginary news story:

Reid halts talks on cuts, and Democrats cheer

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has come around to the idea that the best negotiations are no negotiations.

As the president and Congressional Republicans have tried to force Mr. Reid back to the table for talks to head off the automatic sequestration set to take effect on Friday, Mr. Reid has instead dug in deeper, refusing to even discuss any more spending cuts and insisting in his typical colorful language that it was time for the House to produce a measure aimed at averting the crisis.

“The spending cut issue is now closed,” Mr. Reid said Thursday, before the Senate left town for the weekend. Mr. Reid argued that Democrats had already agreed to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts in 2011, and that the dispute with Republicans amounted to a question of “how much more money do we want to steal from government programs the American people rely on.”

“I’m for no more,” Reid said.

Senate Democrats could not be more pleased with their leader for drawing a line against any more spending cuts, and for insisting that our remaining fiscal problems be resolved only with new tax hikes. “Friday will be an important day that shows we’re finally willing to stand and fight for liberal principles,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, a leading liberal. “That will be a big victory.”
Again, this is imaginary--a political "what if" exercise. But the very idea of it is comical. Comical that Democrats would ever do it, and even more hilarious that the press would somehow blame Mitt Romney for failing to "lead" in making Democrats do it.

When progressives argue that Washington is wired for Republican control, this is what we mean. The idea that spending cuts are morally and politically superior to revenue increases is so ingrained in the Village political press that to even put the shoe on the other foot creates an unthinkable scenario. This is one of Ronald Reagan's most baleful legacies: a Washington establishment that can't stop believing it's the 1980s or early 1990s.

But then, the current President has some culpability in the affair as well. Just today he mocked the notion that he should have somehow persuaded the Republicans to compromise through impossible means. Jokingly, he referred to the possibility of using a "Jedi mind meld," mixing his Star Wars and Star Trek lingo. In a brilliant communications move, the White House team was quick to jump on the nerd faux pas with this:

Funny and smart. But what's behind the balance the President wants to bring to the Force? Among the cuts the President is proposing is "Superlative CPI", also known as Chained CPI. From the President's sequestration webpage:

So we have unspecified discretionary cuts, as well as specified, real cuts to Medicare. That's the President's own plan. We also know that cuts to Social Security and increases to the retirement age have been on the table from the White House. Meanwhile, Republicans are refusing to give any ground on revenues.

One side advocates lots of cuts and a few tax increases. The other side advocates only cuts. It's hard to blame just the press for implicitly placing cuts on a higher moral pedestal.