I’m Broke! Please Stop Helping Me!

If Mitt Romney does get elected president and Republicans do win control of the House and Senate this November, it will be in no small part, I believe, because progressives at least partially lost a meta-argument over what government should do to deal with a deep recession. Until very recently, Republicans and Democrats basically agreed that the public sector should respond with stimulative measures, though the former tended to favor monetary policy and the latter fiscal policy as the best approach.

But now the idea that public-sector austerity (and for that matter, restrictive monetary policy) is an appropriate response has made a big comeback on the Right, and a significant segment of the voting public seems to buy it as well, no matter how much Paul Krugman and other mainstream economists rage at the absurdity of it all.

That’s why appeals like the one offered in the latest Crossroads GPS anti-Obama ad aren’t just laughed off the screen. You can view it and read a brief analysis at the New York Times. I urge you to watch it. It features a middle-classy-looking white woman happily watching her kids play basketball in their driveway. Then they morph into young adulthood, she ages, and she talks about how they’ve moved back in with her because they can’t find jobs, and she can’t afford to retire. She voted for Obama for “change,” but instead he spent and spent and spent. And the whole narration shifts into the standard right-wing rap about rising debt and Big Government. The only effort made to connect any of that with the economic pain the fictional family is suffering is the mother’s worry that her kids won’t be able to pay off all that debt if they can’t find a job. You’d think they were going to be presented with individual bills for public debt any old day now.

The ad does not, of course, acknowledge that this or any other family might be the beneficiaries of some of that spending; it is presumably being poured down ratholes or perhaps given to those other people. Nor does the ad indicate that the “New Majority Agenda” of tax and spending cuts it promotes might have a negative impact on the family, even though there is the image of a student loan bill in one shot. Viewers are urged to tell Obama to stop the “job-killing debt;” that is the sum and substance of its economic argument.

I recently read David Corn’s account of the inner workings of the Obama White House in 2011, entitled Showdown, which mainly dealt with the runup to the debt limit agreement that year. On the crucial subject of why Obama fished into a public debate on deficit reduction instead of maintaining a focus on jobs, Corn says the White House was looking at private polling and focus groups that indicated a significant majority of Americans, and particularly independents, were buying the “job-killing debt” argument. In their own minds, at least, they weren’t surrendering the Keynesian high ground; it had already been lost.

I don’t know how much of this assessment of public opinion is accurate; polling on macroeconomic theories is not the most exact science, and there were other factors at play, most obviously the refusal of Republicans to support any actions that did not involve deficit reduction more or less on their terms. Corn also makes it clear that all along Obama was trying to get to the point where sharp comparisons of Democratic and Republican policies could be credibly made–the point at which he seems to have arrived this year.

But as the Crossroads GPS ad shows, the public debate we never really had about Keynesianism left the country in a position where Republicans can claim they are the real friends of the unemployed, even as they fight to cut or kill unemployment benefits, and weaken and then abolish other elements of the social safety net. It’s cold comfort to know that the woman with her basketball-playing kids is not going to be very happy when she finally figures out what the “New Majority Agenda” actually means.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.