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The Real Cut-And-Runners

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


The real cut-and-runners

By  Jared Bernstein

Democrats have heard from a choir full of soloists about the challenge of regaining their lost dominance. For the most part, the tunes are pretty dissonant.

Democrats should spout big ideas. No, that would give their opponents a big target. They need a national electoral strategy. No, they should just focus on just a few key battles. They should take their opposition of the Iraq war to the public. No, that’s “cut and run.” They should get behind Senator Clinton, their frontrunner. No, she’s too divisive.

Not to dismiss any of these tough calls, but none of them get to the nub of what the electorate needs to hear from the party out of power. What we want to know is what they will do to get the American government to once again do its job.

When it comes to running effective campaigns, the folks currently running the show at the national level have unparalleled skills. When it comes to governing, their lack of skill is equally remarkable. They’ve defunded the government, debased the agencies, exacerbated inequalities and are engaged in a massive risk shift by privatizing the safety net.

Start with the fiscal mess. With their relentless tax cutting, the Bush administration and the Congress have cut revenue collections to historically low levels. Recent reports of a revenue boom are overstated, as revenue growth remains well below its historical average. That’s why we’re looking at a budget deficit of around $300 billion this year.

Moreover, the current deficits are child’s play compared to what’s coming, when future entitlement obligations ensure that tax increases or program cuts will be forthcoming. So part two of this strategy is to make sure tax increases are off the table so we’ll be forced to cut programs like Medicare and Social Security.

They call it “starving the beast” but it’s really their own version of “cut and run.” Slash the budget, keep spending freely while you’re in charge, then run from the inevitable mess that’s coming.

Next, take the agencies. President Clinton took FEMA’s role seriously and the agency actually operated effectively during disasters in the 1990s, such as the Northridge earthquake. When George W. Bush was elected, he gave the job of heading FEMA to his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh (Brownie came later), who criticized his new charge as “an oversized entitlement program.” Budget and staff cuts followed and the rest is history in the making, as FEMA’s response to Katrina has evolved from lethal to wasteful.

Then there’s the Department of Health and Human Services which first crafted an unworkable prescription drug policy —you’re covered up to a point, but once you spend too much, you lose coverage, only to gain it back later—and then bungled its implementation to the point where half the states invoked emergency powers or executive orders to free up the money needed to repair the damage. Meanwhile the Labor Department has gutted ergonomic, mine safety, and training programs, while agreeing to give Wal-Mart advance notice before investigating employee complaints. Our Department of Housing and Urban Development was another major player in the Katrina debacle and the IRS is cutting back on corporate oversight to spend more time auditing the working poor.

There’s a theme underlying these developments: Conservatives are out to permanently diminish the role of government in our lives. Along with beast starving, their favored method is privatization. Whether it’s Social Security, health insurance, education, or unemployment, the message is: Here’s a tax cut, a voucher and a private account. Now go out there into the marketplace and fend for yourself.

If you have any doubt as to whether this shift is occurring, note that the insurer MetLife just introduced a marketing campaign  based on the premise that in lieu of “the traditional guarantees our parents relied on—such as Social Security and pensions,” you now need to buy “a personal safety net.”

All of which leads to a big opening for Democrats. Whether one is a blue- or red-stater, there is a pervasive sentiment that for our $2.7 trillion investment in federal government we shouldn’t need to pay extra for a personal safety net anymore than we should be increasingly vulnerable to economic hardship in retirement, illness or category five hurricanes.

Strengthening Social Security, restoring our fiscal health so we can plan for the future, getting the agencies to work for us, pooling risks instead of shifting them—this may not be the sexiest policy set.

But voters today crave neither sexy policy sets nor nuanced electoral strategies. They just want to restore government’s purpose before the real cut and runners totally undermine it. If Democrats want to seize the moment, they must explain to us how they will accomplish this goal.

Jared Bernstein is Director of the Living Standards program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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