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So this whole process was a sorry mess, and for progressives, there were plenty of disappointments along the way. (I will get back to those.) We also have far bigger battles ahead. (I will get back to those, too.) But one of my themes in life with my fellow progressives is that we need to do a better job celebrating what we win, and we won a lot this round. It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate those victories while we get ready for the next round. Celebrating victories is important, as all the great progressive movement leaders have known well- it empowers people, and makes them believe that victory is possible so they should keep fighting.
For many progressives, including me, we had four major goals going into this budget battle. First priority: that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits- the most important safety net for low and middle income Americans- not be cut. These three programs are the heart and soul of the New Deal and Great Society programs passed by progressives in generations past. They are by far the biggest and most successful social insurance programs ever created in American history, and are central both to our ability to protect our most vulnerable citizens and to our efforts to keep the middle class from being hollowed even more.
These programs, especially Social Security, were in dire danger throughout these negotiations, with Obama and Pelosi and Republicans all willing to make cuts. But because of Republican stubbornness on taxes and strong progressive pushback, in the final deal, Social Security and the other two programs were saved. That is a huge, huge victory- but one that will only be preserved if we keep fighting, and fighting hard, because the Republicans got politically destroyed on this deal and will be even more determined to attack these programs going forward.
A second major goal was more tax revenue from the wealthiest Americans and again, this deal got that done. Not nearly enough-- obviously, the compromises on the 250K vs. 450K threshold and the estate tax are disappointing. As far as I am concerned, we should have a higher top rate than 39.6% on wealthy Americans, it should kick in at $200,000 rather than 250 or 450, and we ought to have a carbon tax and financial transactions tax as well. But a Republican controlled House significantly increased taxes on the top 1% for the first time since early in the first term of the Eisenhower administration, almost 60 years ago. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Civil War 150 years ago to have a Republican-controlled House that raised taxes for high income people That is a big deal, and well worth celebrating.
A third major goal, obviously closely linked to the second, was a more progressive tax code. Again, it got done. The top 1% (the folks with most of the money and wealth in this country) will pay more; the extension of tax credits targeted to low and middle income folks means that many of them will pay less. First time since 1993 we have increased the progressivity of the tax code. This is incredibly important in terms of lessening the effects of the concentration of wealth.
A fourth major goal was making sure unemployment insurance and other programs for low income people got extended. Again, it got done. It is fundamental to Democratic party values to preserve programs for those who are without jobs and otherwise low income, and this deal got that done.
These accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at, they will matter a lot for the people progressives are fighting for. We should take a moment to celebrate these victories, they really are a big deal. Lower income families have some desperately needed extra dollars to sustain them, and the centerpiece of our social insurance programs remain uncut. It’s worth taking a moment to be excited about these accomplishments.
There’s one final thing I am happy about with this deal: the politics are great. The Republicans look like they couldn't govern a paper bag, let alone the federal government. They have horrified swing voters with their blind, stubborn insistence on preserving tax cuts for the top 1%, and they have alienated their base by doing any deal at all.
So overall, I am in a pretty good mood about this deal. But there are also some disappointments, and there is a great deal of danger ahead. Given the strength of Obama’s bargaining position, I still think we could have gotten a better deal if he had just waited the Republicans out, gone over the so-called cliff, and done a deal with the new Congress. Going from 250K to 450K was very disappointing, and the estate tax compromise was much weaker than it should have been. Two little noted things that definitely should have been priorities for Democrats but were left out of the deal: Hurricane Sandy relief, and the tax exemption for homeowners whose mortgages might be written down. The latter one in particular is very bad news, both for the 11 million plus underwater homeowners and for the economy in general, as write-downs are a big boost for the economy because they put money into middle class homeowners’ pocketbooks.
The biggest disappointment, and the biggest worry yet ahead, is that the deal had no resolution on the debt ceiling or Continuing Resolution coming due in just 2 months. It means the Republicans will go back to hostage taking and blackmail threats almost immediately. Obama is talking tough now, which is good, but he has talked tough before and then offered major concessions- he has paid the blackmail to get the hostages released, even when the political leverage is on his side, too many times. Republicans, having been utterly humiliated in this round and come away with no new cuts in major programs, will be determined to win cuts in all the things that help people the most. The progressive movement is going to have to once again fight like crazy to keep Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefit cuts, as well as the other vital programs that help low and middle income people, off the table.
Our side is going to have to keep the heat on everybody in both parties. Our demand should be no cuts to the programs that help the poor and middle class-none. The Republicans are threatening to tank the economy so they can cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and other things that matter. We should just tell them, and nervous Democrats who want to cave to them, absolutely not.
One fight done, where we won considerably more than we lost in my view. More, bigger fights to go.