The Bachmann Wannabes: Conservative in the Abstract, But Slippery with Specifics

All four candidates running to succeed U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District are running on their intent to reverse budget deficits allegedly piled up during the Obama era.  As Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) Brett Neely reports:

“So far, there’s little in the way of policy differences that separates the four candidates.  They’re all sticking with the national GOP’s message about what ails Washington.

GOP candidate Rhonda Sivarajah:  “The debt.”

GOP candidate Phil Krinkie:  “Out of control spending.”

GOP candidate Tom Emmer:  “Bureaucrats.”

GOP candidate John Pederson:  “The deficit.”

The same can be said of the Republicans challenging Senator Al Franken, Governor Mark Dayton, and every other DFL incumbent.  This should come as no surprise.  “The national GOP message” is based on public opinion research, and polls show that an overwhelming number of Americans are concerned about the deficit.  For instance, about 90 percent of Americans surveyed in a Bloomberg poll believed that the deficit is getting worse (62 percent) or not improving (28 percent), with only 6 percent saying that the deficit is decreasing.

In other words, the Republican message is selling with Americans.  This bodes well for them in the 2014 mid-term elections.

 The Myth of “Skyrocketing Deficits”

It’s worth noting that 90 percent of Americans are wrong about the state of the deficit.  In an article titled “The Best Kept Secret In American Politics-Federal Budget Deficits Are Actually Shrinking!,” Forbes magazine notes:

Over the first four years of the Obama presidency, the deficit shrunk by a total of $300 billion dollars.  The improvement in the deficit as measured against GDP is the direct result of the deficit falling to $845 billion for fiscal year 2013—a $300 billion improvement over the previous year. And the positive trend is projected to continue though the next fiscal year where the the annual budgetary deficit will fall again to $430 billion.

More recently, the deficit outlook has further stabilized. As CNN Money reported in May 2013:

By 2015, the deficit will fall to its lowest point of the next decade – 2.1% of GDP. And it will remain below 3% until 2019, at which point it will start to increase again. Deficits below 3% are considered sustainable because it means budget shortfalls are not growing faster than the economy.

Still, perception is reality in politics, so conservatives can be expected to milk this inaccurate “the deficit is skyrocketing” myth for all it is worth.

Courting “Progressative” Voters With Generalities

Will_reporters_press_deficit_chicken_hawks_for_specific_cuts_At the same time, don’t look for conservative candidates to provide a detailed list of spending cuts they would make to reduce the deficit and debt more rapidly.  Again, they read polls, so they know that Americans overwhelmingly oppose cutting the largest and fastest growing government programs.  For instance, a Washington Post poll finds that 77% oppose “reducing Medicare benefits,”  82% oppose “reducing Social Security benefits,”  and 51% oppose “reducing military spending.”  Other polls show that opposition to cutting Medicare and Social Security is even more vehement among Americans over 50 years old, who are disproportionately likely to vote, particularly in non-presidential election years such as 2014.

Pew_Research_Poll__May_2013Beyond those enormous spending programs, a Pew poll also finds that a plurality of Americans believes that the funding levels for all 19 major government spending categories they tested should be either increased or maintained.  Though conservatives have spent decades calling for cuts in “government spending,” Americans are steadfastly rejecting specific cuts in all parts of the federal budget.

Therefore, the dilemma for contemporary politicians is this:   Americans support the abstract notion of “cutting government spending,” which sometimes make us appear to be a conservative nation.  At the same time, Americans oppose cutting any of the component parts of “government spending,” which makes us look like a remarkably progressive nation.  Fiscally speaking, Americans are “progressatives,” conservative with our generalized rhetoric, but progressive with our program-by-program choices.

If the past is predictive of the future, most political reporters won’t press conservative candidates for a specific list of spending cuts to support their bluster.  Instead, reporters will allow conservative candidates to rail in a generalized way about “cutting spending,” and in a false way about “skyrocketing deficits.”  And as long as that rhetorical free ride is allowed to continue, the polls show that conservatives’ “cut government spending” mantra is a winning message.


Note:  This post also was chosen for re-publication in Minnpost and as one of Politics in Minnesota’s Best of the Blogs.

Political Cliches on Amobarital

I suppose it’s a cliché to point out that politicians speak in  clichés.   Their wall-to-wall use of bromides to mask deeper political truths has made political news conferences and speeches a rhetorical wasteland.  Everyone can finish the sentences of the politician speaking:

“We must grow the _______.”

“We must invest in the _____.”

“Our greatest natural resource is our ______.”

“Economy,” “future” and “people/children,” right?  No wonder the masses only perk up for scandals.  They spice up an  utterly predictable political discourse.

To cut through the cliches and learn what politicians really think, what if we snuck a little amobarbital — sometimes used as a “truth serum” to obtain information from those who are unable or unwilling to tell the truth — into the water bottles at the podium of State Capitol news conferences? The first sentence or two would be the predictable, carefully focus-grouped political clichés.  But then, bam, it’s amobarital time, baby!

“It’s time for the Legislature to do what ordinary Minnesota families do when they encounter difficult financial times.  Mom and dad gather around the kitchen table, they thoughtfully review their household finances, and they have tough conversations about how they could cut the family budget to make ends meet.

(Amobarital kicks in)

But then most of those dads and moms say “screw it” and run up their high interest credit cards instead.   After all, that’s why the Federal Reserve reports that consumer debt is at an all time high of $2.75 TRILLION.  So whatever the Legislature does, it should not, I repeat, NOT act like those ordinary Minnesota moms and dads grappling with their financial future at the good old kitchen table.”

For the record, State Capitol Police Force, I understand that drugging elected officials would be an ill-advised and felonious act that I am not seriously contemplating or encouraging.  But a boy can dream, can’t he?

– Loveland

Buffaloed By Bills

Minnesota Republicans endorsed State Rep. Kurt Bills to challenge Democratic Senator Amy Kloubachar in November.  His nomination win was an impressive feat, fueled by support from delegates supporting Ron Paul, the libertarian presidential candidate who promises to legalize heroin, cocaine, and prostitution under the banner of “the party of traditional family values,” which makes perfect sense.

Republican Convention delegates seemed particularly smitten with Bills’ anger at the federal debt.  Anger is the coin of the realm at party conventions, and, make no mistake, Bills is hopping mad about the debt.  (Not the debt that he put on Minnesota schools as a member of the State House, a different debt.)

Fair enough.  The federal debt is a big issue.  So let’s take a look at the causes of it:

In summary, to address the causes of the skyrocketing debt, the answer is pretty clear:  Undo what Bush did.    If you do that — cut off war spending and the Bush tax cuts — the debt trend line very quickly flattens.

What are Rep. Bills’ positions on these issues?  Well, I couldn’t tell a lot from his slim website position paper or media clippings.  There looks to be a good reason why MinnPost’s Erik Black recently wrote a piece called “Guessing Where Kurt Bills Stands on The Issues.”  (Black can’t get an interview.)  So guess we must, along with a little help from his website.  From what I can tell, it doesn’t look like Rep. Bills is too keen on putting the breaks on the primary drivers of the debt increase:

  • BILLS WON’T CUT BUSH’S TAX CUTS.  It doesn’t appear Rep. Bills supports eliminating the Bush tax cuts, the largest cause of the debt increase.
  • BILLS WON’T CUT BUSH’S FOREIGN WARS.  If Rep. Bills is for immediately withdrawing from the middle east wars, another big driver of the debt increase, he doesn’t mention it in his website foreign policy section.

I imagine Rep. Bills was opposed to the Recovery Act.  But you can see the Recovery Act cost is a much smaller contributor than the Bush wars and tax cuts.  Moreover, the up to 2.4 million jobs the Recovery Act created prevented additional debt that would have been caused by an even more severe economic meltdown.  Finally, the Recovery Act is now done, so in terms of Rep. Bill’s future debt reduction plan, it is a mute point.

Instead of undoing what Bush did to create the debt, Rep. Bills seems to want to double down on Bushonomics — tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of high flying industries and aggressive use of the military.  If that’s true, “Bills” could end up being a prophetic name.

– Loveland