According to the Times, President Obama will officially come out against extending the Bush tax cuts for households making over $250,000 a year, offering instead to extend cuts for the 98% of Americans who earn less than that. He’s also presented a package of deductions and capital incentives for small businesses, plus infrastructure spending designed to boost the economy and encourage hiring. It’s not a stimulus, though, because people don’t like that word. That a government plan to stimulate the economy must never again be called a stimulus is one of the few things that Democratic lawmakers can agree on lately. The other is that not giving a tax cut to the the richest 2% of the country is politically risky, and maybe they should just do it anyway so Republicans will stop being mean to them.
It’s such thinking that has allowed the Democratic Party to turn the largest congressional majority in decades into a universally agreed-upon failure. Exactly how the first two years of the Obama presidency have been politically disastrous is somewhat difficult to explain, given that he and his party passed substantive health care reform, applied long-overdue regulation to Wall Street and the financial industry, and kind of ended combat operations in Iraq. That last one is fake, but still—besides a public option, the Democratic Party got everything it wanted.
Yet everyone agrees that they are screwed in November. The Times has stopped just short of declaring a Republican majority for both houses in 2011, on the grounds that the economy is not fixed and the Tea Party exists. It’s a year of populist rage, goes the conventional wisdom, when anti-incumbent sentiment will throw the rascals out and replace them with the rascals we threw out two years ago.
This argument is predicated on the idea that the American people are extraordinarily stupid. In a midterm election whose two biggest concerns appear to be joblessness and federal deficits, you’d think that the Democratic Party would seize on a plan to not give the wealthiest 2% of the population $70 billion. That strikes me as a vote-getter. Yet a large portion of the party seems to believe that they must extend Bush’s irresponsible cuts, lest Republicans accuse them of raising taxes.
An informed electorate would see through that bit of spin. They would say (or at least be told) yes, Democrats are raising taxes—raising taxes on rich people, so that the suddenly larger number of struggling middle-class people can catch a break. Perhaps President Obama could even trot out the statistic, recently publicized in Slate,* that the richest 1% of Americans now take home 24% of the national income. But the Democratic Party does not believe in an informed electorate. They believe in the same American people that the GOP does: resentful, disinterested in long sentences and unable to distinguish between information and advertising.
Thus are many rank-and-file Democrats unwilling to raise taxes on anyone, lest the simple majority of Americans be told Dems are raising taxes on them. It wouldn’t be true, of course, but apparently that wouldn’t stop people from believing it.
This politically suicidal belief that the GOP can exercise absolute control over the presentation of Democratic policies—more control, even, than facts and demographics—is the same mentality that has allowed a minority of Republicans to overpower a huge Democratic majority in Congress. For two years now, congressional Republicans have wielded the threat of filibuster as if it were filibuster itself. The GOP never had to incur the political cost of actually reading the phone book in the Senate chambers to prevent the passage of laws while America watched on C-SPAN. They only had to say they might, and terrified Democrats began to compromise with an imagined electorate already sick of the people they had just elected in a landslide.
The contemporary Democratic Party has no guts, and it’s because they believe the contemporary American people have no brains. Any sensible person knows that it’s not in his interest to give a tax break to the richest 2% of the population, but the Democrats are afraid to undergo a referendum on how many sensible people live in this country. It’s a self-defeating philosophy—one that cedes the advantages of both integrity and political power to a paralyzing fear of screwing up. No one can lead with a psyche like that.
President Obama, for his part, is starting to see through it. He saw through it in today’s tax policy announcement, just as he saw through it when he finally pulled the trigger on health care—albeit belatedly. If, the first time Sarah Palin mentioned Death Panels, he had gone on television and said, “Sarah Palin is stupid. Read a goddamn newspaper,” before knocking over his microphone and stalking out of the press room, he might have saved us several months.
There is no point in trying to govern a stupid people. If certain Democrats are so terrified of our national ignorance that they can’t trust us to support policies obviously in our own interest, they might as well concede the November elections now. It seems that many of them already have. My compliments to the ones who remain, who today took the first step toward believing again in an electorate that might occasionally understand what the fuck is happening.