Why Progressives Are Losing

Progressives are not just distraught but befuddled. They ask, as Vice President Joe Biden’s former top economic advisor Jared Bernstein did on his blog, why are they losing the economic and fiscal fight. And why, in particular, are the two parties rushing to attach enormous spending cuts to debt limit legislation while paying little attention to the more immediate jobs crisis.

The answer is at least three-fold.

First, while progressives think we need more stimulus in the short term and more public investment and higher taxes (at least on the well-to-do) in the long run, people aren’t buying it due to their own struggles.

Not only is unemployment high, but living standards have been stagnant for a decade for most Americans. Struggling to get ahead, they’re angry that the taxes they sent to their government haven’t produced better results for them. They don’t believe tax hikes will stop with the wealthy, they don’t think they can pay higher taxes, and they’re skeptical that a bigger government will generate a better return on their investment than the current one.

Second, progressives aren’t making a united case for a progressive agenda, so there’s no reason for people to support one.

President Obama has bought the conservative line about the need to cut spending both now and in the future; the only issue is how deep. Over the last several months, he’s acceded to more and more Republican demands for cuts, both to finish the 2011 appropriations bills and to raise the debt limit.

He talks about raising taxes on well-to-do households to soften the need for spending cuts, but he hasn’t made it a bottom-line issue. He extended President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for everyone at the end of 2010, violating his own pledge to let them expire for households earning more than $250,000 a year. He also expressed support for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s, D-Nev., package for the debt limit even though it includes only spending cuts.

With no progressive leadership from Obama, Democrats are even more disunited than usual on their message. Some want more stimulus to boost jobs, some want higher taxes on the wealthy as part of deficit reduction, and some want to scrap both fights and position themselves where they think the voters now are – to the right.

Third, Republicans are, as usual, united behind a simple message that they echo with admirable discipline and apply to every situation.

Here it is. Problem: big government, big taxes, big spending. Solution: small government, small taxes, small spending.

At troubling times, Americans look for scapegoats and gravitate to simple solutions. Today, government is the scapegoat and the simple solution is to cut it. Republicans hammer their mantra relentlessly, while Democrats offer a muddled response that cedes much of the rhetorical turf to Republicans anyway.

Progressives are befuddled that they’re losing. Frankly, I’m befuddled that they’re befuddled.