President Obama just wrapped up his speech on the Ryan budget, and Jed Lewison has a couple live-blogs about it. He was quite pleased with the speech. But I want to point out something he wrote at the very end:
Obama continues hammering Republicans for moving so far to the right. “Cap and trade was originally proposed by Republicans … now they say we shouldn’t even be thinking about environmental protection.” “The individual mandate … originated as a conservative idea. … Now suddenly this is some socialist overreach. So, as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions I’m taking now on the budget and a whole host of other issues … [20 years ago] would have been squarely centrist.” It’s Republicans that have shifted.
Isn’t it Democrats who have shifted as well? For this to be the case, for the Democratic leader to have co-opted a whole bunch of Republican plans on the biggest economic issues of the day, represents the clear fact that the Democratic Party has ideologically become akin to where a moderate Republican would have stood in the 1960s. And the claim is always that this is a function of politics, that it’s about compromise, it’s about moving things forward. That’s against the entire point of today’s speech! Obama was saying precisely that Republicans are NOT willing to compromise. If these shifts in ideology were about compromise, it would presume that a compromise has actually been reached. But it hasn’t. Democrats have drifted right and Republicans have drifted further right away from them, with common ground still elusive.
In another revealing moment in the speech – one the President actually said twice, once in the speech and another time in response to a question – he invoked the Bowles-Simpson recommendations for deficit reduction. And he said, very specifically, that his problems with Bowles-Simpson were that they raised too much money in taxes, and that they cut too much in national defense. This was the leader of the Democratic party staking out a position to the right Bowles-Simpson. He didn’t say he objected to raising of the retirement age in that plan, or the Medicare cuts and global budgeting. He objecting to it raising too much revenue and cutting too much of the military budget. He also touted that discretionary spending as a percentage of GDP under him was “lower than it was under Eisenhower,” and that he started “no big new programs to help the poor.”
So the President made a very cogent case against Paul Ryan’s budget. Anyone can tell you that. And he made a very good case that, in a choice between the right and the middle, the middle position, his position, should be preferable. That this leaves out an entire side of the argument should be quite obvious.
This isn’t just on Obama, by the way. We’ve had a rightward shift in our politics for the last forty years. Obama didn’t really try to change that, instead positioning himself in the middle on policy, instead of shifting where the middle is perceived. But what major Democratic political figure HAS tried to change that over those forty years?
In the 1970s, issues like a guaranteed national income were actually a part of Presidential campaigns. In this day and age, you get the adoption of conservative ideas as the leftward plank in the range of acceptable opinions. Far from changing this conversation, the online progressive movement of the past several years hasn’t really even arrested the forward motion. This is the real story of American politics, when you get out of the day-to-day struggles.