Keeping Calm About Fiscal Talk Strategy

Yesterday afternoon, Jonathan Chait wrote a post suggesting that since Obama concessions on the entitlement front will ultimately be made if there is to be any kind of fiscal agreement, maybe accepting a Medicare eligibility age increase wasn’t such a bad idea, because (a) conservatives value this concession well beyond its actual cost, and (b) by shifting a two-year cohort of citizens from reliance on Medicare to reliance on Obamacare, it might boost support for the latter among older folks. Chait made it clear he thought it was a very bad idea on the merits, and the whole thing read like a contrarian throw-away to me.

For the record, I don’t think argument (b) is very strong at all, and argument (a) is immensely speculative, and also contingent on what other “entitlement reform” ideas wind up on the table.

But color me appalled by David Dayan’s piece at FDL early this morning barbecuing Chait as a sell-out peddling “idiocy,” among other choice epithets. Atrios piled on by naming Chait his “Wanker of the Day” (characteristically, Chait tweeted that his acceptance speech would be issued in due time).

Dayan’s lede immediately raised some questions:

Since Jon Chait has never met a concession he didn’t like, he comes out with an endorsement of raising the Medicare eligibility age as part of a long-term deficit deal. So his cover for what is universally regarded as a terrible idea surely led deficit scolds seeking to use the problem to weaken the safety net to give each other high-fives.

Whatever else he is, Jonathan Chait is one of the most joyfully vicious partisans around. His extensive writing on the fiscal talks, far from embracing the principle of promiscuous Obama concessions, has redundantly focused, for nearly two years, on the leverage Obama enjoys from the fact that he doesn’t have to make any concessions at all in order to achieve most of his goals. And he’s also been routinely critical of the “deficit scolds” Dayen suggests Chait is aiding and abetting.

So why the categorical vitriol aimed at Chait? I dunno. Maybe it involves old grudges, which Chait is pretty good at inspiring (those who remember his savage “Diary of a Dean-o-Phobe” blog at TNR back during the 2004 presidential cycle know what I mean). Or maybe it’s precisely Chait’s relatively hard line recently on the fiscal talks that leads folks to fear a sudden lurch into surrender-monkey behavior on his part. Or perhaps it’s something personal. Or it could be just the first skirmish in the inevitable “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.”

But I do think it’s kind of important that progressives allow each other a bit of liberty in discussions about big fiscal issues: after all, even the Right-Wing Noise Machine is in a bit of disarray on the subject at the moment. I know some people think resisting anything that affects Social Security or Medicare benefits is the ultimate Red Line that cannot be crossed. Personally, my own fear is that in defending that Red Line, congressional Democrats will wind up making concessions on Medicaid and other low-income programs that in my opinion are more morally compelling than keeping Medicare precisely the way it is today.

Maybe my fears are misguided, or maybe I just don’t share the obsession of some liberals in keeping Medicare pristine as a potential model for a universal single-payer health care system somewhere in the distant future, even if that means today’s poor folks have to suffer as a lower priority.

But we ought to be able to talk about these things calmly–particularly at a time when it doesn’t appear conservatives know what they are doing, other than shifting blame and trying to get to the next election.

UPDATE: The esteemed Digby makes it clear her own hostility to Chait is mostly about Iraq.

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.