Charlie Pierce’s big line about the debate mirrored my thoughts about how the discourse has been so narrowed by a combination of DC establishment insulation from the actual problems of ordinary Americans, and Democrats becoming the face of New Austerity:

What you saw, I think, anyway, was the end product of the president’s consuming naivete as regards the American political process, as well as the end product of thirty years of a Democratic Party that has slid so far to the center-right that a Democratic president found himself arguing with a “severely conservative” Republican candidate over the issues of how much the Democratic president had cut out of the budget, how many regulations he’d trimmed, how much more devoted to the middle-class-kick-in-the-balls Simpson-Bowles “plan” he is, and how he would “reform” Social Security and Medicare — and, frankly, a Democratic president losing some of those arguments to his left. A Democratic president got through an entire debate and didn’t mention unions at all, even though the fact that our teachers are unionized here in Massachusetts is a big part of the reason why Romney got to brag on how good our education system is [...] somewhere, Al From, that greasy corporatist lackey, was smiling. He’s got the political process of his dreams. Of course, it is also the case that The Great Sellout is already under way, so what the hell does it matter.

At one point, Romney was able to trap the President on the subject of deficits (“You’ve been president four years. You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits.”), which is only possible because of the way a Democratic President holds deficit-cutting as a virtue and refuses to point out that this is precisely the wrong thing to do in the midst of mass unemployment.

And this discourse gets narrowed, frankly, because there’s a massive political machine dedicated to narrowing it. These things don’t just happen by accident. Someone has to pay the bills to promote the rise of austerity economics:

Billionaire private equity mogul Peter Peterson is investing millions of dollars in a new Washington-based campaign for austerity, planning to blanket the airwaves after the election to bolster the case for a “grand bargain” in Congress’ lame-duck session that would slash Medicare and Social Security spending in exchange for new tax revenue.

The new Campaign to Fix the Debt is chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, and former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican. It’s priming for lame-duck negotiations over the expirations of the payroll tax cut and the Bush tax cuts, as well as scheduled cuts to defense and non-defense spending.

Peterson’s allies aren’t waiting for the election, however. In New Hampshire, the co-chairmen of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles commission — former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House official Erskine Bowles — have endorsed incumbent Republican Rep. Charlie Bass, who supported a budget bill with many of their austerity recommendations, over progressive Democrat Annie Kuster. Bowles and Simpson have become fashionable politically, so Bass is taking full advantage of their endorsement, running full-page ads in newspapers across the state [...]

Peterson is not new to the austerity scene. From 2007 to 2011, he personally contributed at least $458 million to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which portrays all government spending as in crisis, desperately needing 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 largely funded by the foundation met with audiences who rebuffed its proposals.

It doesn’t matter if the public won’t buy the dog food. The politicians have. They’ve been positioning themselves to get this done for over two years. Only tax-averse Republicans who wouldn’t provide the cover needed for all the cuts stopped the deal the first time. And they have this massive machine to contend with from the Big Money Boys. These are people who want politicians to quit whining about poor people. They would rather keep them marginalized.

The President had an opportunity to defend social insurance programs last night, and he started with a dodge to give himself maximum political maneuverability before moving (not very convincingly) to a set of animating values about the people who need these benefits (without commenting on whether current benefits are adequate). This was pretty transparently discomforting.

I actually thought there was a decent enough debate about Medicare on both sides, but in the end it comes down to someone who wants to radically transform the system and someone who wants to, in his words, “tweak” it. And that means both sides are playing on the same side of the field.