The political consequences of economic know-nothingism

THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF ECONOMIC KNOW-NOTHINGISM…. Four months before the midterm elections, “virtually every Republican” in Congress agrees that the country can’t afford $30 billion in extended unemployment benefits, but it can afford $678 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy. Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) apology to BP instantly became a key moment in this cycle, as did Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) dismissal of the importance of the crash of 2008.

But this new issue is a development to build an entire campaign around.

This week, the Senate Republican leadership made one of the single dumbest policy arguments imaginable: policymakers shouldn’t even try to pay for massive tax cuts for the wealthy, because they pay for themselves. GOP officials see the overwhelming evidence that Bush’s tax policies helped produce a massive deficit, but they reject it, preferring to believe a ridiculous fantasy.

As a substantive matter, this is insane. But what about the politics? Ezra Klein had a smart take on this earlier:

In recent weeks, Republicans have gained a lot of traction — and hung a lot of tough votes — on their concerns for deficits. Now they’re stuck between two untenable positions: That tax cuts needn’t be offset as a matter of principle, or that they needn’t be offset as a matter of policy. The first suggests they don’t really care about deficits. The second suggests they don’t understand deficits. Meanwhile, they’re filibustering an extension in unemployment insurance based on concerns about deficits. Democrats are ecstatic: Tax cuts for the wealthy versus insurance for the unemployed is, for them, the first hint of solid ground in some time.

This isn’t a slam dunk for Democrats. Tax cuts remain popular, and not paying for them has been, in the past, a popular position. But where Democrats were on the defensive on deficits last week, Republicans are going to spend the next week trying to sync positions that will radically increase the deficit with a political message that emphasizes the need for deficit reduction.

Republicans are a creative bunch, especially when it comes to selling garbage, but I’m not sure how even the GOP can spin this: “We really care about the deficit, so we have to reject popular aid to jobless Americans. But we don’t really care about the deficit, so we demand massive tax breaks for the wealthy.”

Even the increasingly-conservative Washington Post editorial board isn’t buying the GOP line, calling it “nonsense.”

Yesterday, in a story about public opinion, the Post noted the concerns of a New Jersey man named Dwight Michael Frazee, who’s struggling badly in this economy. He was barely getting by on unemployment benefits, before a Republican filibuster left him with nothing.

“My life has been total stress. I sleep maybe four hours a night, worrying about money,” he said. “I understood the president and Congress had to stabilize the banks, get Wall Street going. I figured something would be done for middle-class Americans, that they couldn’t abandon us. But I was wrong.”

The story wasn’t explicit about Frazee’s politics, but the implication was that he blamed Obama and congressional Democrats for failing to help him. It’s a reminder of what Dems need to tell voters: Republicans blocked unemployment aid, but keep demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for millionaires, regardless of what it does to the deficit.

One party wants to fight for those struggling; one wants to, in Frazee’s word, “abandon” them. This is the stuff campaigns are made of.