Deep Philosophical Divide Underlies the Impasse

By JOHN HARWOOD, New York Times, March 1, 2013

WASHINGTON — Let’s play truth or consequences with the budget sequestration that took effect on Friday.

That can be difficult through the fog of political war that has hung over this town. But a step back illuminates roots deeper than the prevailing notion that Washington politicians are simply fools acting for electoral advantage or partisan spite.

Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt. But they do aim to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.

Democrats don’t seek to cripple the nation with debt. But they do aim to preserve existing government programs without the ability, so far, to set levels of taxation commensurate with their cost.

At bottom, it is the oldest philosophic battle of the American party system — pitting Democrats’ desire to use government to cushion market outcomes and equalize opportunity against Republicans’ desire to limit government and maximize individual liberty.

And they are fighting it within a 21st-century political infrastructure that impedes compromise.

Those government initiatives include Social Security from F.D.R.’s New Deal, Medicare and Medicaid from L.B.J.’s Great Society, and the 2010 national health care law. President Obama wants to keep them in roughly their current forms — even as the wave of baby boom retirements makes them costlier than ever.

His Republican opponents are the philosophic heirs of conservatives who opposed their creation in the first place. Beginning in 2009, they gained fresh momentum in the quest to roll them back.

While the Great Recession depressed tax revenues, the Wall Street bailout and stimulus bill gave Americans sticker shock; deficits topped $1 trillion annually. So in 2011, the newly elected Republican House began pushing President Obama backward in budget fights that forced significant slowing of federal spending and some significant spending cuts.

Their climactic showdown over the debt limit in 2011 damaged the nation’s credit rating. With both sides battered and exhausted, Republicans joined Democrats in seizing the so-called sequester as the means to end the impasse.

Then Mr. Obama stopped backing up — and moved to generate momentum of his own.

The right’s soft spot, as Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich learned amid the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s and early ’90s, is the popularity of expensive “entitlements” serving the elderly.

“Cut spending,” as a general invocation, is popular. “Cut spending for your mother’s Medicare” is not.

Mr. Obama used his re-election campaign to isolate and attack that vulnerability. Acknowledging the need for some entitlement cuts, he offered voters this budgetary choice: his smaller cuts combined with tax increases on affluent Americans, or the Republicans’ bigger ones without tax increases.

More Americans, as polls have repeatedly shown, prefer Mr. Obama’s approach. He won the election.

Now the president is trying to wield his public opinion advantage as a club to back Republicans down.

The budget cuts of 2011, like sequestration now, targeted smaller “discretionary” programs that don’t command the support Medicare and Social Security do. Mr. Obama argues, and some Republicans agree, that Washington has cut most of what it can from those.

He continues to advocate comparatively modest Medicare cuts focused on reimbursements to doctors and hospitals — more near-term cuts, in fact, than Republicans have been willing to specify. But at one high-profile event after another, in Washington and across the country, he accuses Republicans of preferring reduced benefits for old and vulnerable Americans over higher taxes on the affluent.

Opponents blast him for “campaigning” instead of governing. Yet those events have become his method of seeking outcomes that negotiations with Republican leaders haven’t produced.

It worked soon after the election when he forced Republicans to accept some tax increases in the “fiscal cliff” deal. It worked again when Republicans declined to fight anew over the debt limit until May, at the earliest.

That doesn’t mean it will work again by making Republicans accept a second tax increase.

Over the last generation, polarization has melted away the alloy that once narrowed differences between Republicans and Democrats, leaving both as masses of near-pure ideological ore.

The Republican rank-and-file is purer — more conservative than the Democratic rank-and-file is liberal.

Resisting tax increases is a matter of such deep conviction that some senior Republicans believe House colleagues would fire John A. Boehner as House speaker for conceding to Mr. Obama again. For less ideological Republicans, the partisan composition of their districts and states can make following national opinion riskier (against a more conservative primary challenger) than defying it (against a Democratic general-election foe).

The difficulty of winning a second tax increase may ultimately make the president regret the fiscal-cliff deal, which brought only half the new revenue he considers necessary.

For now, he seeks to grind down his opposition as the impact of sequestration mounts for air travelers, education programs and the Pentagon. Against Republicans’ solid edge on the issue of spending restraint (in this week’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll), he wields wide Democratic advantages on helping the middle class and protecting Medicare, and a narrow one on handling taxes.

The survey showed 50 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Obama’s job performance. Only 29 percent expressed a positive view of the Republican Party.

Among demographic groups, the only one viewing Mr. Boehner’s party more positively than negatively was white Southerners (by just 39 percent to 35 percent at that). More than twice as many Americans credited Mr. Obama, as compared with Republicans, with emphasizing themes of bipartisan unity.

Even if numbers like those don’t threaten the House Republican majority in 2014, they alarm party strategists who’ve watched their nominees lose the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Mr. Obama’s hope: the fact that Congressional Republicans are insulated from national opinion doesn’t make them impervious to it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/us/politics/a-peek-under-the-hood-of-sequestration-politics.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130302&_r=0

Politicians Massively Overestimate Conservatism Of Constituents: Study


By Luke Johnson, The Huffington Post   03/04/2013

Politicians, especially conservative ones, massively overestimate the conservatism of their constituents on the issues of gay marriage and universal health care, an academic paper published Sunday has found.

David E. Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan surveyed nearly 2,000 state legislative candidates in the 2012 election and asked them what percentage of their constituents they thought supported same-sex marriage, a universal health care system and abolishing all welfare programs.

The result was a vast conservative misperception. Constituents, on average, supported gay marriage and universal health care by 10 percentage points more than their politicians had estimated. For conservative politicians, the spread was around 20 percentage points, meaning that conservative legislators tend to greatly overestimate how conservative their constituents actually are.

“For perspective, 20 percentage points is roughly the difference in partisanship between California and Alabama,” the authors write. “Most politicians appear to believe they are representing constituents who are considerably different than their actual constituents.”

The authors note that the conservative imbalance is particularly severe. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” they write.

The authors note that their findings rebuke Nixonian notions of a “silent majority,” or more recently, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s contention that “real America” supported her and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz) 2008 ticket.

Moreover, the findings seem to have different implications for conservative and liberal politicians. Many conservative legislators, fearing primary challengers more than a general election against a Democrat, are perhaps more responsive to pressure to move further right, even while their constituents hold a different view.

For liberal politicians, they appear to have more freedom than they may have initially perceived to act on issues such as gay marriage and health care. But the perception that constituents’ wishes are more limited means that a politician may think that 60 percent of constituents need to agree before moving forward with a policy, hence, the idea of a universal health care system is often seen as out-of-reach, though it may not be.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/04/politicians-conservatism_n_2806684.html

The Big Fail

By PAUL KRUGMAN, New York Times, January 6, 2013

San Diego

It’s that time again: the annual meeting of the American Economic Association and affiliates, a sort of medieval fair that serves as a marketplace for bodies (newly minted Ph.D.’s in search of jobs), books and ideas. And this year, as in past meetings, there is one theme dominating discussion: the ongoing economic crisis.

This isn’t how things were supposed to be. If you had polled the economists attending this meeting three years ago, most of them would surely have predicted that by now we’d be talking about how the great slump ended, not why it still continues.

So what went wrong? The answer, mainly, is the triumph of bad ideas.

It’s tempting to argue that the economic failures of recent years prove that economists don’t have the answers. But the truth is actually worse: in reality, standard economics offered good answers, but political leaders — and all too many economists — chose to forget or ignore what they should have known.

The story, at this point, is fairly straightforward. The financial crisis led, through several channels, to a sharp fall in private spending: residential investment plunged as the housing bubble burst; consumers began saving more as the illusory wealth created by the bubble vanished, while the mortgage debt remained. And this fall in private spending led, inevitably, to a global recession.

For an economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: my spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall — and unemployment will soar.

So what can be done? A smaller financial shock, like the dot-com bust at the end of the 1990s, can be met by cutting interest rates. But the crisis of 2008 was far bigger, and even cutting rates all the way to zero wasn’t nearly enough.

At that point governments needed to step in, spending to support their economies while the private sector regained its balance. And to some extent that did happen: revenue dropped sharply in the slump, but spending actually rose as programs like unemployment insurance expanded and temporary economic stimulus went into effect. Budget deficits rose, but this was actually a good thing, probably the most important reason we didn’t have a full replay of the Great Depression.

But it all went wrong in 2010. The crisis in Greece was taken, wrongly, as a sign that all governments had better slash spending and deficits right away. Austerity became the order of the day, and supposed experts who should have known better cheered the process on, while the warnings of some (but not enough) economists that austerity would derail recovery were ignored. For example, the president of the European Central Bank confidently asserted that “the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.”

Well, someone was incorrect, all right.

Of the papers presented at this meeting, probably the biggest flash came from one by Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh of the International Monetary Fund. Formally, the paper represents the views only of the authors; but Mr. Blanchard, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, isn’t an ordinary researcher, and the paper has been widely taken as a sign that the fund has had a major rethinking of economic policy.

For what the paper concludes is not just that austerity has a depressing effect on weak economies, but that the adverse effect is much stronger than previously believed. The premature turn to austerity, it turns out, was a terrible mistake.

I’ve seen some reporting describing the paper as an admission from the I.M.F. that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. That misses the point; the fund was actually less enthusiastic about austerity than other major players. To the extent that it says it was wrong, it’s also saying that everyone else (except those skeptical economists) was even more wrong. And it deserves credit for being willing to rethink its position in the light of evidence.

The really bad news is how few other players are doing the same. European leaders, having created Depression-level suffering in debtor countries without restoring financial confidence, still insist that the answer is even more pain. The current British government, which killed a promising recovery by turning to austerity, completely refuses to consider the possibility that it made a mistake.

And here in America, Republicans insist that they’ll use a confrontation over the debt ceiling — a deeply illegitimate action in itself — to demand spending cuts that would drive us back into recession.

The truth is that we’ve just experienced a colossal failure of economic policy — and far too many of those responsible for that failure both retain power and refuse to learn from experience.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/opinion/krugman-the-big-fail.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130107&_r=0

The real deficit argument

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: January 6, 2013

Should our politicians dedicate themselves to solving the problems we face now? Or should they spend their time constructing largely theoretical deficit solutions for years far in the future to satisfy certain ideological and aesthetic urges?

This is one of the two central choices the country faces at the beginning of President Obama’s second term. The other is related: Will the establishment, including business leaders and middle-of-the-road journalistic opinion, stand by silently as one side in the coming argument risks cratering the economy in an effort to reverse the verdict of the 2012 election? Yes, I am talking about using the debt ceiling as a political tool, something that was never done until the disaster of 2011.

My first questions are, admittedly, loaded. They refer to a difference of opinion we need to face squarely.

It is entirely true that in the wake of two budget agreements, in 2011 and the just-passed deal on the “fiscal cliff,” we have not reduced the deficit enough. The issue is: How much is enough?

Contrary to all the scare talk you keep hearing, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that we could put the deficit on a sustainable path for the next 10 years with one more deficit-reduction package equal to about $1.2 trillion, plus the resulting interest savings.

By sustainable, I mean keeping the debt from growing as a share of gross domestic product and holding it at around 73 percent of GDP for the next decade. This is a more than reasonable number by international standards. To put it in perspective: According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011 Canada’s debt was at 85 percent of GDP, Germany’s was at 81.5 percent — and Greece’s was at 163.3 percent.

Holding the debt ratio in the low 70s is well within our sights. It could be achieved through a combination of $600 billion in cuts and $600 billion in additional revenue through tax reform — or through modest taxes on carbon or on financial transactions. (Okay, for now, I am dreaming on the last two, but they are still good ideas.) The cuts could be made without wrecking Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and without eviscerating government’s capacity to invest in the future.

We could then shelve our deficit obsession for a while and confront the problems that should be center-stage over the next few years: restoring shared economic growth, spurring the creation of good jobs, dealing with gun violence, reforming immigration laws, improving our education system, and taking steps on climate change.

But there is the other side of this debate, pushed not only by conservatives but also by a deficit-reduction industry that sees the only test of seriousness as a willingness to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for those who will retire 10, 20 or 30 years from now. They want to be able to admire nice predictions on a computer screen that show the debt dropping to 60 percent of GDP.

There is no objection in principle to discussing the modest changes that could improve the long-term stability of Social Security. But when it comes to health-care cost projections, there is so much we don’t know that it is truly foolish to make decisions now for, say, 2040.

Health-care cost inflation has been dropping. We can’t be sure how sustainable this trend is, but economists who study the matter think the cost curve may be bending downward for the longer run. The Affordable Care Act contains measures that could further restrain health expenditures.

Is it either sensible or humane to decide in 2013 on the basis of such limited knowledge to toss future seniors and low-income Medicaid recipients under the bus? Health-care costs are something we must keep working on. We can buy time for this difficult undertaking by getting the deficit down to a sustainable level.

And that brings us to the debt ceiling. The central weakness of a largely helpful fiscal cliff deal is that it did not save us from a debt-ceiling fight. It would be colossally stupid — there is no other word — to derail an economic recovery that is slowly but steadily taking hold with another battle over a silly provision in our law. Will all the respectable people who know this sit on the sidelines and let it happen, or will they speak out now?

We are finally on a promising path. Only politics of a very degraded kind can keep us from moving forward.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-jr-the-real-deficit-argument/2013/01/06/7e07b314-5830-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Politics is the great divider in United States by Dan Balz

Washington Post, June 4, 2012

Excerpt

the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.

For 25 years, Pew has been conducting regular surveys assessing American values. They provide a series of historical benchmarks by which to examine the changes in what binds people and what divides them. The latest report finds considerable continuity over that quarter-century in the way different groups view society — and one very large change.

“Overall, there has been much more stability than change across the 48 political values measures that the Pew Research Center has tracked since 1987,” the report states. “But the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period — from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in the new study.”

Republicans and Democrats have long seen the world through different lenses. On some issues, the gaps between them are relatively small (the importance of political engagement, for example). On others they are wider. What Pew found is that in almost every measure, those gaps have increased over the past 25 years, and in some cases now seem to represent almost unbridgeable divisions.

The Pew report found that the changes began to accelerate during George W. Bush’s presidency. Barack Obama’s presidency, the report says, has received “the most extreme partisan reaction to government in the past 25 years. Republicans are far more negative toward government than at any previous point, while Democrats feel far more positive.”…

Some of the most significant differences — and the areas where the divisions have increased the most — were on core issues of the 2012 campaign: the role and scope of government and the social safety net.

Twenty-five years ago, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on how they assessed the scope and performance of government was six percentage points. Today it is 33 points. On support for the social safety net, what once was a 21-point gap is now 41 points. On environmental issues, the gap has ballooned from five points to 39 points.

On some of these issues, the biggest changes in attitudes have been among Republicans. Twenty-five years ago, 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats said the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Today, 75 percent of Democrats agree with that statement, but the percentage of Republicans who agree has plummeted to 40 percent.

The shift on environmental issues among Republicans has been even greater. In 1987, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said there should be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment. In the latest survey, Democratic support is unchanged, but among Republicans it has plunged to 47 percent…What once was a three-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on doubting the existence of God is now 15 points…Partisanship has grown dramatically and shows no sign of abating in the near future.

Full text
It hardly took another study for people to know that political polarization in this country is deeply embedded. Still, a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center paints a particularly stark portrait of a nation in which the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.

For 25 years, Pew has been conducting regular surveys assessing American values. They provide a series of historical benchmarks by which to examine the changes in what binds people and what divides them. The latest report finds considerable continuity over that quarter-century in the way different groups view society — and one very large change.

“Overall, there has been much more stability than change across the 48 political values measures that the Pew Research Center has tracked since 1987,” the report states. “But the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25-year period — from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent in the new study.”

Republicans and Democrats have long seen the world through different lenses. On some issues, the gaps between them are relatively small (the importance of political engagement, for example). On others they are wider. What Pew found is that in almost every measure, those gaps have increased over the past 25 years, and in some cases now seem to represent almost unbridgeable divisions.

The Pew report found that the changes began to accelerate during George W. Bush’s presidency. Barack Obama’s presidency, the report says, has received “the most extreme partisan reaction to government in the past 25 years. Republicans are far more negative toward government than at any previous point, while Democrats feel far more positive.”

Andrew Kohut, who directed the study, said two things are notable. One is that, “by and large, values haven’t changed. The other is that political identity has eclipsed these other factors” such as race and class as the biggest sources of division. “The only thing that’s changed is the extent to which Republicans and Democrats go to opposite sides of the room on most issues.”

Some of the most significant differences — and the areas where the divisions have increased the most — were on core issues of the 2012 campaign: the role and scope of government and the social safety net.

Twenty-five years ago, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on how they assessed the scope and performance of government was six percentage points. Today it is 33 points. On support for the social safety net, what once was a 21-point gap is now 41 points. On environmental issues, the gap has ballooned from five points to 39 points.

On some of these issues, the biggest changes in attitudes have been among Republicans. Twenty-five years ago, 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats said the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Today, 75 percent of Democrats agree with that statement, but the percentage of Republicans who agree has plummeted to 40 percent.

The shift on environmental issues among Republicans has been even greater. In 1987, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said there should be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment. In the latest survey, Democratic support is unchanged, but among Republicans it has plunged to 47 percent.

But Republicans aren’t the only ones responsible for the partisan polarization. In other areas, changes in attitudes among Democrats have widened the gap between the parties.

Although majorities of Democrats and Republicans express strong faith in religion, Democrats are less likely to say that today than in 1987. What once was a three-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on doubting the existence of God is now 15 points. The report found that among liberals, the shift away from religious values has been particularly pronounced.

Democrats are more supportive of immigration rights than they once were, while Republican support has declined somewhat. The percentage of Democrats who say government should do more to ensure equal opportunity for blacks and other minorities has risen, more so than the decline among Republicans.

The most profound change may be on the issue that has roiled American politics since early in Obama’s administration: the role of government.

“Since 2007, Republicans increasingly feel that regulation does more harm than good, while Democrats increasingly disagree,” the report states. “Republicans see more waste and inefficiency, Democrats see less. And the share of Republicans who say the government is too involved in our daily lives has grown, while the number of Democrats who say this has decreased.”

Americans long have been divided along partisan as well as demographic lines. The report states that 25 years ago, the cleavages between Republicans and Democrats were “on a par with the differences of opinion between blacks and whites, wealthy and poor or college grads and those without a college degree. This is no longer the case. Since 1987 — and particularly over the past decade — the country has experienced a stark increase in partisan polarization.”

Part of this is related to the growing homogenization of the major political parties, a sorting out that has been going on for some time. More Republicans now call themselves conservatives (over the past 12 years, that percentage has risen from 60 to 68) and more Democrats now consider themselves liberal (increasing from 28 percent to 38 percent since 2000).

Over this period, the Democratic Party has become more diverse, with minorities now accounting for 45 percent of those who call themselves Democrats, up from 36 percent 12 years ago. During that same period, Republicans have remained overwhelmingly white in their makeup, at about 87 percent.

The changes the report cites have taken place at a time when the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as politically independent has risen sharply. Citing data from the Gallup organization, the Pew study states that it is probably safe to say that there are more independents than at any time in the past 75 years.

But the increasing partisan divisions cannot be attributed to the fact that the two parties are smaller and more ideological. Many who call themselves independents actually lean toward one party or the other. The Pew study states: “Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012.”

Americans may bemoan partisan gridlock in Washington, but they need only look at the report to understand the root of the problem. Polarization in Washington is not just politicians behaving badly. It reflects what is happening around the country. Partisanship has grown dramatically and shows no sign of abating in the near future.

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/politics-is-the-great-divider-in-united-states/2012/06/04/gJQALpKSEV_story.html