The root of progressive despair
posted at 9:57 am on August 2, 2011 by Karl
What causes the Democrats and the establishment media to hysterically accuse Republicans of being terrorists?
Perhaps it is the crisis in confidence we see from people like Kevin Drum:
Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.
This is why I blame the broad liberal community for our failures, not just President Obama. My biggest beef with Obama is the same one I had three years ago, namely that he’s never really even tried to move public opinion in a specifically progressive direction. But that hardly even matters unless all the rest of us have laid the groundwork. And we haven’t. Wonks, hacks, activists, all of us. We just haven’t persuaded the public to support our vision of government.
If it makes progressives feel any better, Drum is only half-right. Reagan — and other Republicans — have been unable to get meaningful spending cuts or entitlement reform because public opinion did not support them. There are a zillion polls showing that Democrats and Republicans alike only support cuts to space exploration and foreign aid. Those who routinely rely on MediScare in their campaigns should not need a reminder of this.
The problem for progressives is not that they failed to persuade the public to support big government; it is that they failed to persuade the public to pay for it. The pundit class ( James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, etc.) can pass around their seemingly endless supply of “graphs that all budget discussions should start with” among themselves, but they have yet to figure out how to sell the public dramatically higher taxes, low economic growth, in return for still-unbalanced budgets. Instead, they employ a seemingly endless supply of euphemisms — “balanced approach,” “spending in the tax code,” etc., to avoid speaking their agenda plainly.
The problem for progressives is the end of the Cold War and the global financial panic of 2008. The public has seen the slow demise of totalitarian socialism and is now watching the slow demise of democratic Euro-socialism. Seeing Margaret Thatcher’s comment about running out of other people’s money playing out in the daily news leads public opinon to conclude that entitlements need fundamental changes. The public may not actually want to effect those changes; it will be as hard to wean the public off debt as it is to wean any individual debt addict. But enough of the public is starting to recognize that past progressive over-promising is enough of a problem without signing onto another round of over-promising. This is why the public could not be convinced ObamaCare had merit; they (correctly) did not believe it would reduce the deficit. The public did not need to study the CBO’s alternative fiscal scenario to figure this out; they could look at the history of Democrats and entitlements.
The problem for progressives is that the debt ceiling deal occasioning all of this extremist rhetoric from the left will probably not head off a downgrade of the nation’s credit. A downgrade will be yet another step on the path to hitting the one true debt ceiling. There is likely no amount of messaging — however euphemized — that will convince the public to remake our country in the mode of the failing economies of Europe. And every day carries us closer to the point where the opinion of the public matters less than the opinion of our creditors.