Before I get to Ezra Klein’s review of the Pete Peterson Fiscal Summit, let’s marvel for a second at just how much influence Peterson has, that he can get pretty much everyone in Washington to kiss the hem of his garment. Former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker John Boehner, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and what seems like half of Congress were on hand at this thing. And the reason for this is simple: dollars and cents.
According to a review of tax documents from 2007 through 2011, Peterson has personally contributed at least $458 million to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to cast Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and government spending as in a state of crisis, in desperate need of dramatic cuts. Peterson’s millions have done next to nothing to change public opinion: In survey after survey, Americans reject the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare. A recent national tour organized by AmericaSpeaks and largely funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation was met by audiences who rebuffed his proposals.
But Peterson has been able to drive a major shift in elite consensus about government spending, with talk of “grand bargains” that would slash entitlements, cut corporate tax rates and end personal tax breaks, such as the mortgage deduction, that benefit the middle class.
To put Peterson’s spending in context, all corporations and unions combined spent less than $4 billion on lobbying in 2011. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was heading over to the summit on Tuesday afternoon to protest. During his entire federal career, beginning in 1989, Sanders has raised $16,566,611, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, roughly 3 percent of what Peterson has spent in just a few years.
This power is clear from the guest list last night. But it’s interesting to me to see who has been seduced by this power. Republicans are basically saying the same things in the era of Peterson that they have been saying for the past thirty years: they want low taxes and less wealth-redistributing programs to the lower classes. Sometimes they say they want “less spending” and a “smaller deficit,” but only when a Democrat is in office, and only in relation to those redistributive policies. The tax cuts blow holes in the deficit, so that’s not a preoccupation for them. And this was clear last night:
Even when asked point-blank how the GOP was to blame for the deficit crisis, Sen. Rob Portman — Bush’s budget director and another supercommittee alum — avoided any mention of taxes. Yes, he said, the Bush administration could have paid more attention to the long-term fiscal picture. But it was because “after 9/11, particularly … more was spent on homeland security, defense,” Portman explained. He added that Bush should have vetoed costly appropriations bills from Congress and cut more social spending. What he didn’t bring up: the Bush tax cuts — which have added more than $1.8 trillion to the deficit, more than any single other program under his presidency or Obama’s.
The only tax cuts they would entertain repealing are the ones that distribute funds to the lower classes. For example, in their budget bill, they replaced defense cuts with, among other things, a rollback of the child tax credit, which goes mostly to lower-class and middle-class families.
By contrast, Democrats have moved over the last several decades, under duress from Peterson on having to “be serious” about deficits. One after another at last night’s event, Democratic politicians took aim at so-called entitlements, which I prefer to describe as the social safety net:
“Our party’s problem is, we are always reluctant to give up the gains of the past to create the future,” Bill Clinton told the audience at the Pete Peterson’s fiscal summit. “Democrats are reluctant to commit to longer-term health-care savings; they don’t want to touch Social Security.”
Clinton went on to attack Republicans for becoming a far more extreme and ideological party, making compromise nearly impossible. But he brought up the same point time and again: “My party is not blameless.”
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a former member of the supercommittee, echoed the same sentiments at Peterson’s deficit-reduction confab. In responding to legitimate fears that Republicans would privatize or eliminate social services,“maybe Democrats worked too hard to protect those programs from devastating cuts and in doing so, perhaps that has kept us from trying to come up with a smart budget,” Becerra admitted.
I’d like to find the Democrats who are “reluctant to commit to longer-term health-care savings” and who “don’t want to touch Social Security.” Contrary to President Clinton’s remarks, they no longer exist. Even Nancy Pelosi is playing footsie with benefit cuts.
If this doesn’t happen in the near future, it’s because Peterson and his ilk failed to get Republicans to provide cover with any tax increases. But the idea that Democrats are somehow reluctant to get out the budget axe is just wrong. They are far more serious about so-called “fiscal responsibility” than Republicans. In fact, the President on that stage, Clinton, was the one who ended welfare as we know it. We now know, after the Great Recession, the terrible costs to that policy for millions of families. But Democrats haven’t learned from that experience.
So while Republicans are clearly insane about the fiscal future – and impervious to logic, as Tom Coburn showed – the country has drifted to the right because one party has become caught up in pleasing the likes of Pete Peterson rather than their own constituents.
“We have a lot of people in our party who will not be drummed out if they depart from the conventional wisdom,” Clinton said last night. That’s not true. For the conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party is now that “balanced” cuts are needed to the entire budget to move America forward. And if you depart from that… you hear the drums playing, right?
UPDATE: Digby notes that the Obama-aligned Center for American Progress is bragging, with Administration support, that federal taxes, spending and the deficit are all smaller [percentage of GDP] than when the President came into office. This is something that should lead to outrage rather than be source material for boasting, but that’s the Democratic Party we have today.