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Monday, July 18, 2011  

How Should Liberals Respond to a Bad Budget Deal?

The outlines of a debt deal are coming into view, and they're awful. I don't much doubt that Democrats will go for it in the end, which should leave those of us who have been volunteers and advocates asking some hard questions about how best to engage in a political process that seems to punish the most vulnerable in fair weather or foul.

I hope to have more to say about this some time soon, but I wonder if it's not time for anti-poverty advocates to step back from coalition politics for a moment and think about how to gain some leverage. Democratic politicians tend to represent much more diverse constituencies than Republicans. Republican voters tend to be old, white, and rich, so there's relatively little in the way of balancing interests or making trade-offs for them. The one exception is abortion. It's not a huge issue for John Q. Median Voter, it's not a matter of burning personal passion for any GOP presidential nominee ever, it's not something most big-money mavens inside the party and our really care about. And yet the anti-abortion movement is so disciplined and mobilized that it can not only demand and receive the fealty of all big-time Republican politicians, it can shape the debate to a striking degree even when Democrats are in power.

How do they do this? There are many reasons. But advocates for children and the poor should heed two in particular. The first is being entirely single-issue-minded. That means being willing to let middle-class seniors, suburban environmentalists, middle-class abortion rights advocates, anti-war activists and the like fend for themselves. Coalition politics will always leave poor kids with the short end of the stick, so you have to refuse completely to bargain away their interests for anything at all.

Second, you have to be willing to say no to absolutely any politician and any deal regardless of the consequences. No money or labor for any Democrat who votes to cut Medicaid, nutrition programs, or early childhood health and education. None. And to wishy-washy liberals who complain that this will only elect more Republicans, you say that you will see every single Democrat lose every single election before you'll sell out people who can't afford to see a doctor. You don't do this individually; in order for it to work, it can't be churlishness or ideological purity. It has to be organized, and it has to be a tactic. The point is that you make it clear from the start that no deviation of any kind will go unpunished, and that you will light the world on fire if you have to in order follow through on that. This is how you get the tail to wag the dog in coalition politics. And it can work. The extreme and unyielding demands of the anti-abortion movement, while perennially unpopular with pundits, have not made the GOP uncompetitive (they haven't managed to bring down the abortion rate at all either, but that's another story).

Imagine how this debt hostage scenario would look if a coalition of anti-poverty groups, a million grassroots volunteers, and a bloc of 50 House members and 10 Senators had all signed a pledge to vote against any cuts in Medicaid, nutrition programs, Title IV, and so on. If they were willing to say, "do what you want to well-off Medicare recipients, military spending, tax expenditures, and so on, but we will not under any circumstances support cuts to the safety net for the needy," we'd have a much different debate on our hands. The Washington Post's editors would swoon, because only rich white people get to have non-negotiable demands. And 'swing voters' would be irritated for the ten daily seconds they spent thinking about national politics. Mean old Rush Limbaugh and mean old Fox News would say mean things about them. But my guess is that a willingness to take some hostages of our own would pay off.

Now this is just a sketch of a possible approach. I'm not endorsing it. But it's one alternative to the dispiriting routine of church leaders pleading for a 'circle of protection' around the most vulnerable whenever budget-cutting is in fashion. It's a toothless plea first because it's a plea and second because we're mostly middle-class with all kinds of investments in other social goods, including not having another financial meltdown. The carrot for lawmakers is feeling virtuous, the stick is nonexistent. I don't want to discount the importance of trying to form attitudes and change minds--that's what I'm doing some of the time, after all, in the absence of a real movement to protect the poor. But we owe it to ourselves and to the people we supposedly advocate for to understand why we always fail and to explore ways to stop failing.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:41 AM
Agree, and I would add primary challenges to the mix. There's also a lot of discussion in enviro circles about being tactically less compromising.

I would worry that something like this really does need a grassroots effort behind it or else it's just empty posturing from nameless NGOs no one's ever heard of.
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