Friday, April 13, 2012

Thomas Friedman's Can't-Win Strategy

Did I say "can't-win"? Friedman thinks the opposite - that if you're a presidential candidate and promise to govern the country exactly as he believes it should be governed, you'll win in a landslide. What does that entail? If you read Friedman, even occasionally, you already know: slashing Social Security and Medicare, and embracing budget gimmickry. Friedman first describes what he wants in a budget,
What do we need from a presidential candidate today? We need a credible plan to do three specific things: cut, tax and invest. As the economy improves, we need to cut spending, including all entitlement programs, to fix our long-term structural deficit. We also need to raise revenue through tax reform so we don’t just shred our safety nets and so we still have resources, not only for defense, but to invest in all the things that have made us great as a country: education, infrastructure, quality government institutions and government-funded research.
That is the same sort of thinking that landed us with an excessively complex, compromise-laden healthcare reform legislation: the idea that you shouldn't make a proposal that doesn't do everything that you want (or perhaps I should say, Friedman wants). In the context of the ACA, the law was supposed insure most Americans, limit abuses by the insurance industry, maintain or reduce present levels of healthcare expenditure and be revenue-neutral. We got that, at least in theory, but we would have been better off had we focused on tackling the elements separately - something that might be possible in a healthy political culture but was not even encouraged by pundits like Thomas Friedman. Commentators typically demanded that any bill meet all of those tests or opposed attempting reform.

As Friedman should know, were the Republicans interested in "saving" Social Security, a program that's not actually in very much trouble, a compromise bill could be hashed out and passed inside of a month. It's not complicated - adjust the tax rate, the cap on contributions, eligibility ages and... done. Just like last time.

As Friedman should also know, the path to winning elections does not include cutting Medicare and Social Security spending. Friedman doesn't like Paul Ryan's plan because Ryan's supposed cuts would "deprive the country of the very discretionary spending required to do what we need most: nation-building at home." As usual it's difficult to know if Friedman is speaking in ignorance of the facts or if he just doesn't want to be honest, but it's difficult to believe that Friedman isn't aware that Ryan's budget cuts are secret. It's also difficult to believe that Friedman thinks Ryan's plan would actually balance the budget. Or perhaps Friedman sees such a huge upside in privatizing and voucherizing Medicare and in slashing Social Security that he just doesn't care about the rest.

Except, that is, for bipartisanship.
Finally, the plan has to win bipartisan support, so the candidate advocating it not only wins the election but has a mandate to implement his plan afterward.

The Ryan-Romney budget fails that test.
Now in fairness, when Friedman describes something as "bipartisan" he actually means "consistent with what I want", with the remarkable conceit that if either Romney or Obama were to endorse doing exactly what he wants they would win an overwhelming mandate in the November election. But Friedman should also recall that it was not long ago that President Obama offered a "grand bargain" to the Republicans, a deal that included significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and the Republicans said "No". Why? Apparently because they believed that agreeing with a long-term budget plan that did everything that they supposedly want, they would help the President get reelected. Politics over policy. Sorry, Tom, but even if your policy ideas were good, "bipartisanship" is about politics.

Friedman clings to a nonsensical notion of what a budget can do,
Obama has proposed his own 10-year budget. It is much better than Ryan’s at balancing our near-term need to revitalize the pillars of American success, by cutting, taxing and investing. But it does not credibly address the country’s long-term fiscal imbalances, which require cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Earth to Friedman: If a budget is better over a ten-year period, there's no need for further discussion or qualification. It's simply better. Why? Because even projecting out ten years we're engaged in a considerable amount of guesswork. Because the present Congress cannot bind future sessions of Congress to its budget priorities. Because you never know when another terrorist attack, war, or opportunistic President who wants to cut taxes for the rich will come along and adopt "deficits don't matter" as its fiscal policy.

Friedman remains dewy eyed about the failed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and "Simpson-Bowles" report as a blueprint for the future. Again, never mind the budgetary gimmickry such as arbitrary spending caps. Friedman is certain that a report that failed to win bipartisan report among members of the committee would have been embraced by Congress. What's more, he believes that Congress would have been so happy to pass a Simpson-Bowles flavored budget that they would have approved an infrastructure spending bill and might also have passed another stimulus bill.
If Obama had embraced the long-term deficit commission, he would have had a chance of combining it with some near-term stimulus — investments in infrastructure — that would have helped the economy and grow jobs. Without pairing it with Simpson-Bowles, Obama had no chance of getting more stimulus....

But had Obama embraced the bipartisan “Simpson-Bowles,” and added his own stimulus, he would have split the G.O.P., attracted gobs of independents and been able to honestly look the country in the eye and say he had a plan to fix what needs fixing. He would have angered the Tea Party and his left wing, which would have shown him as a strong leader ready to make hard choices — and isolated Romney-Ryan on the fringe.
What the bleep is he smoking?

First, "Simpson-Bowles" is bipartisan only in the sense that its authors were historically associated with the two leading political parties. It couldn't get majority support from the committee itself. Contrary to Friedman's suggestion there's no indication that Congress has ever been interested in passing it - after all, were they interested nothing is stopping them.

Second, you cannot "embrace" Simpson-Bowles, an austerity plan, and tack on stimulus spending. It's an inherent contradiction of the plan. Yes, I get the real issues - what's important to Friedman is that the plan slashes Social Security and Medicare, so he would be perfectly content with allowing the short-term picture to be out of balance in order to achieve his long-term goals. Except, as previously noted, the short-term is all that matters - the next Congress can be expected to have different spending priorities.

Third, you cannot "embrace" Simpson-Bowles and also tack on infrastructure spending. Simpson and Bowles took the position that "infrastructure was indeed a problem in need of upgrade, and... the solution is to reduce the deficit in order to free up the necessary funds to tackle the problem, rather than adding it to existing spending".

Fourth, if you're going to assert that a good budget will "invest in all the things that have made us great as a country: education, infrastructure, quality government institutions and government-funded research", it's fair to note that not only is Simpson-Bowles inconsistent with infrastructure spending, it proposed cuts to education spending. The more you get into the details, the more appears that Friedman is indifferent to "all the things that have made us great as a country".

Fifth, there is simply no way that either the Republican Party or mainstream media would have looked at a proposal from President Obama that said, "We embrace Simpson-Bowles. Except for austerity - we want another stimulus bill. And except for infrastructure - we want a huge investment in infrastructure. Oh yes, and except for education spending which should increase, not decrease," and not made the argument that he was in fact rejecting Simpson-Bowles, or at least the parts that mattered. They would observe a huge increase in government spending, a huge increase in the deficit, and that embracing cuts you're not willing to enact doesn't count for much.

Sixth, although Friedman may sincerely believe otherwise, cutting Social Security and Medicare spending are not popular. As Friedman knows, Ryan's reinvention of Medicare is a radical plan, well beyond the cuts proposed in the Affordable Care Act, yet Republicans engage in shameless demagoguery about those cuts.

Seventh, Friedman asserts,
Obama says his plan incorporates the best of Simpson-Bowles. Not only is that not true, but it misses the politics. Republicans will never vote for an “Obama plan.”
Why does Friedman imagine that Obama's presentation of the Simpson-Bowles plan with virtually nothing left intact, except the cuts to Social Security and Medicare that Thomas Friedman believes are the best part of that plan, would be perceived as something other than "an 'Obama plan'"?

If the Republicans won't vote for anything Obama endorses, no matter how good it is, by Friedman's "logic" the President must offer them somebody else's plan without regard to its quality, because in Friedman's mind a plan is only "good" if it can gain bipartisan support. Yes, folks, they pay him to write this stuff.

Friedman's conclusion is that "Obama is running on a suboptimal plan" (i.e., one that doesn't slash Medicare and Social Security") and that means "If he’s lucky, he might win by a whisker".
If Obama went big, and dared to lead, he’d win for sure, and so would the country, because he’d have a mandate to do what needs doing.
Friedman has a short memory. President Bush claimed a "mandate" to reform and privatize Social Security after his reelection, and his own party wouldn't back him. As shocking as it may be to Thomas Friedman, fount of conventional wisdom, rich beyond the dreams of most Americans, a lot of people actually depend upon Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare, and cuts to those programs are not popular.

For goodness sake, the Republican Party would like few things more than to slash or eliminate Social Security and Medicare. If there were a whit of sense to Friedman's notion that endorsing those cuts would pave a path to the White House, Romney would have been there months ago. Following Friedman's advice is a sure path toward making an election night concession speech.

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