First of all, we have to assume the White House is saying something remotely like what it means about The Big Freeze. I'm not going to get into parsing the horse manure that Jared Bernstein was shoveling on Maddow on Monday night. If the White House -- seriously -- is proposing this as nothing more than pure optics with literally zero substance behind it (i.e. they're really not cutting anything, they're just saying they are)... that's such a transparently idiotic move politically that it's beneath critique.
So. Taking them at face value (if for no other reason than because the alternative is too depressing to contemplate), the freeze matters because this crosses a line between weak support or neutrality on a progressive economic agenda and active, even vigorous opposition to one.
There problems are myriad. First, as Obama argued repeatedly during the campaign and as history has proven (whether you look at Clinton or at Hoover), it's lousy policy. It will prolong the Great Recession and keep people out of work for longer. Second, it's going to tilt the electoral landscape for every single Congressional and Senate race towards favorable territory for Republicans. (more on this in a second) Third, and most destructively, over the long term this is going to severely limit the capacity of the nascent progressive movement to make our argument.
Here's how this tilts the entire landscape towards Republicans: think of politics as like a big game that works somewhat akin to Risk. There are territories occupied by each side, and skirmishes affect who is occupying the territories. The basic gameplay mechanism is that you gain or lose territory by effective communication of a coherent argument for how you plan to govern, and then by following through on it. If a candidate in a campaign clearly says "if you elect me I'm going to do X because of situations Y and Z", and you do X, and situations Y and Z get better, you gain ground. Even if situations Y and Z take a while to improve, that matters less, because the main thing voters respond to is the clarity and precision of the argument. For a variety of reasons, you get a lot more points for clearly communicating the worldview than you do for actually delivering the goods.
But there's also a feedback loop built into the game, one in which where the less territory you control, the harder it is to win individual skirmishes. So if you control lots of territory you're always at an advantage. This feedback loop adds something of a winner-take-all component to the game, which tends to make it more frustrating for the losers when they get behind. If you lose territory, the micro-effect on your skirmishes is that all of the sudden the dice are always loaded, you start every game behind a touchdown, or you are fighting every battle up a hill.
In this analogy, the territories correspond to the collective mental landscape of the electorate: what people generally are thinking about the country and whether Democrats or Republicans are offering a better and more clear argument for governing it. The skirmishes are every individual election, especially federal (congressional and senate) races. (Local races tend to be decided generally a little more on local or personality issues, although the overall shape of the mental landscape certainly affects them too.)
Now, progressives don't really know the full shape of their argument yet. One of progressives' favorite pastimes is to call loudly and sharply that we need to develop our agenda now!... while not actually, you know, doing anything to develop such an agenda. In fact just yesterday, the faux-progressives over at Third Way put up this classic of the "call for an agenda" genre. (They also called me "bro" in a reply on twitter, sending me the table scraps their agenda is composed out of. Still not sure what to do with that one.)
While we don't know what our economic argument is very clearly and it's been painfully difficult to get progressives at any level to engage on this question, we do have a hazy outline of it. Just for the sake of this argument, let's say it's something vaguely like these five principles:
- Securing basic freedoms like health care and child care.
- Strong public investment in education, research and infrastructure.
- Democratizing economic power through whatever works: employee ownership, unions, asset building programs, progressive taxation, etc.
- Building the green economy.
- Common sense regulation for the environment and financial sectors in particular.
Now as it turns out, a democratically elected government is actually a pretty great tool for determining long-term investments in society. It does much, much better than the private markets. In fact that's really one of the core purposes government is for. America's greatness isn't just the strength of capital, it's the strength of our democracy and the wise, long-term investments we've made. If private markets are privileged, we get piles of plastic crap from China and asset bubbles. If public investment is privileged (or forget privileged, if it's remotely balanced or even just not starved), we get better schools, more research and bridges that don't have giant chunks of metal falling off them during rush hour.
So what the freeze does is that it powerfully undercuts the core of that argument. There's a reason Sen McCain spent so much time arguing for exactly this during the campaign: it's a bonanza of conservative message reinforcement. It reinforces the idea that government spending has grown out of control (it hasn't) and that government in general is a bad thing and needs to be reigned in. The President isn't just pandering and flailing throwing out lousy policy; he's actually actively negating our long-term capacity to shift dimension 3 (worldview-shaping) economic power.
The culprit here is isn't message research or lack thereof. I'm sure this was polled and focused group to death and I'm sure it tests just fine. It's that message research when it's unmoored from any sensible principle or agenda just gives you noise. Garbage in, garbage out. We're never going to make progress until we come to some rough agreement on what direction we're headed; one of the benefits of a principle-based approach is that we don't have to nail down the policy details, we just need some rough agreement that yeah, this is what progressives are about. The five principles there (plus globalizing this approach) might be a starting point, they might be the wrong direction. I don't know. But if you don't stand for something, you'll stand for anything.
One other thing that this means is that national Democrats have managed to learn absolutely nothing at all about how to win elections since 2002. Even September 11th barely woke me from my blissful ignorance of even a modest commitment to citizenship; but it was the craven, limp Democratic response to Republican attempts to gin up the war in Iraq that finally did it for me, when I could feel us slipping towards one-party rule.
This is that same moment of one-party slippage, applied to the economy. That the President's political team is unaware of the resonance and optics and peril of this move is horrifying. I would never say that this November is going to be a bloodbath - who knows what will happen, and a lot of it will depend on each individual candidate and campaign team and their abilities to execute. But if Obama goes forward with this, the messaging terrain certainly just got much, much trickier. Maybe this is some kind of cognitive-dissonance style play, a Chewbacca defense for the economy. But that play works for them by repulsing voters so completely they tune out. I don't see how it's advantageous for us.
When I stood and listened to Senator Obama deliver his speech in Denver 2008, I knew the message wasn't quite there. He didn't run as a progressive and I didn't expect him to govern as one. But I did have a large degree of hope that he wouldn't actively oppose and undercut the long-term direction the country has to go towards. I did have hope that he wouldn't cede large swaths of territory to our opponents. I hoped we weren't going to be looking at eight (or at this rate, four?) years of still sliding backwards.
If you don't believe me, believe Bill Kristol:
"Republicans, in a spirit of bipartisanship, should praise the president for beginning to come to his senses about too much government spending (and for acknowledging at the same time that national security spending can’t be frozen)....Obama’s pseudo-spending freeze is a chance for Republicans to be (refreshingly!) bipartisan, and to take advantage of Obama’s willingness to move the debate over the rest of this year to a terrain—who will constrain big government?--that is good for them, and the country."
And yet as bad as this, today there is news of two amazing victories for progressive taxation in Oregon. What will happen next?