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Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 21, 2011, 8:51 pm

Despite Polling, Progressives Still Scrambling to Win Budget Fight

BY Art Levine

Liberal activists and labor groups are taking heart from a spate of independent and commissioned polling showing that the public overwhelmingly rejects Rep. Paul Ryan's House-passed GOP plan. Small wonder: it essentially ends Medicare as we know it, slashes other safety-net programs—and drastically cuts taxes on the rich to the lowest levels in 80 years. By margins in some polls nearing 90%, those polled favor keeping Medicare in its current format, not turning it into a voucher program that won't cover health care costs for future retirees.

On top of all that, a solid majority of Americans, including Republicans according to one recent poll, favor raising taxes on those earning above $250,000, as President Obama has proposed. (Even if he didn't fight for taxing the wealthy last year.) So this is a fight liberals think they likely can win during the upcoming budget debate—despite Tea Party-driven Republican leaders increasingly willing to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their demands—and in 2012.

As Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future, points out, "Ryan's budget was a huge gift to us. It makes absolutely clear that they're out to destroy these programs that are vital to the middle class. Our polling shows that it's poison," he says. "There's a big, massive effort especially in Republican districts to mobilize opposition. Even the Tea Party hates this stuff."

Maybe so, but early signs are that the high-profile, effective opposition to the full range of budget cuts and tax breaks that is supposed to be unleashed during this congressional recess is still too fragmented to make much of a difference. There's little indication that the draconian centrism afflicting Washington pundits and Democrats is changing, or that Democrats in Congress or the White House fear the wrath of their liberal base.

The booing and hostility that greeted Rep. Paul Ryan when he defended lowering taxes for the wealthy has been greeted by some liberals as yet another sign that the tide is turning in their favor.  But that's hardly the same as a well-organized grassroots campaign and high-profile advertising war that reframes a budget debate that has been dominated by deficit hawks. Even President Obama accepted the GOP's basic deficit premise in his Johnny-come-lately defense of a Democratic vision of such programs as Medicare and Medicaid.   

This tough questioning of Ryan and the razzing he faces is hardly the sensational TV equivalent of the media-savvy Tea Party revolt against the health care bill during the summer of 2009.

As the noted progressive blogger Digby observed, with a blunt candor you don't see from the spokesmen for liberal groups:

The most amazing thing about this --- and as a member of the progressive movement it shames me to admit it --- this stuff is not orchestrated by the Democrats or liberal interest groups. We are, quite simply, too lame and too unorganized to do it. (I know this because there is a huge amount of kvetching going on behind the scenes about why the left can't get its act together on this.)

These are just plain old regular citizens going to the townhalls on their own and challenging the Roadmap to Hell. And they're doing it in spite of the media rending their garments and speaking in tongues about how the deficit is going to kill us all in our beds. 

In truth, there is activism being mounted against the Ryan plan supposedly underway, even if you haven't yet heard much about it. Perhaps the most potentially high-impact events are just starting to being organized for next week, going after saving the low-hanging fruit of the budget debate: Medicare and Social Security, the focus of the "Don't Make Us Work 'Till We Die" campaign led by the Strengthen Social Security coaliton. (An email alert on the events didn't go out to some reporters until Friday afternoon.)

In addition, Moveon.org is reportedly organizing protests in Congressional districts against the attacks on Medicare, as is the grassroots organization Americans United for Change, that Social Security coalition that includes unions and advocacy groups, and several other progressive groups. But for any progressive-leaning blogger and reporter seeking information on past and current protests against the GOP budget, it's not been easy to find, although there have been a few exceptions. Indeed, no organization or website has yet even provided centralized, easily accessible information on the range of activist inititiatives. All this is yet another sign of the lack of coordination and ineffectiveness of progressive groups at a critical point for our country.

One organizer, described as the "go-to" person by other progressives in catalyzing the budget fight, was initially reluctant to speak to this reporter, then was unable to say if there was either a list of town halls to attend or even a "take action" website where people could directly participate further. "There isn't an online tool for this," she observed. "The information on the town halls is very hard to get."

She added, "We're asking people to call their congressional offices," in order to find out where the town hall meetings are. She concluded, "There are a lot of angry people out there, and we also want people to encourage Democrats in the House and Senate to hold the line against a radical restructuring of government."

Yet they're avoiding or discouraging the media while hiding opportunties for direct activism—this is a strategy for mass mobilization? These missteps simply can't be chalked up to the overwhelming financial firepower of the Koch brothers and corporate donors funding conservative groups and the GOP.

There may be an understandable reluctance on their part to provide a list of town hall activities for activists to attend, (as Campaign for America's Future blogger David Johnson nonetheless did), worried that GOP legislators might somehow shift the sites at the last minute. But that still doesn't explain why as of this writing there are virtually no "take action" pages online outside of signing pre-formatted petitions that are too often ignored by congressional offices.

As one PR spokesperson for a very large membership organization admitted in an email, "Don't have a landing [web] page. Sorry."

Labor, as usual, is the best organized group in any liberal coalition, and on Thursday, the AFL-CIO sent out an important email alert to union members and signed-up activists:

Can we trust Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to fix our long-term deficit problems in a responsible way?

Obviously not. On April 15, they passed an all-out assault on vital programs, including Medicare, to pay for massive giveaways to millionaires and billionaires—while doing almost nothing to balance the budget. The bill was passed without even a single Democratic vote. 

This “budget” bill is a fraud on the American people—not a starting point for debate or negotiations. It is no more of a deficit reduction plan than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s taking away rights from workers was a budget plan.

A budget that’s only passed the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t law. But the big danger is that the Senate will try to cut a deal that meets House Republicans halfway and worsens the imbalance in our economy. We can’t let that happen.

Tell your senators and President Obama to reject the House Republican budget fraud—and create a responsible 2012 budget that funds the America we believe in....

But most of these groups, with the apparent exception of the Strengthen Social Security coalition, are not actually providing any information on their websites about how would-be activists could participate in grassroots actions—from protests to phone calls—that could actually make a difference in a very tough budget fight.

The Campaign for America's Future and some of its allies showed the impact that intense lobbying could have on the White House, as they generated petitions and pressed staffers about the strong public opinion against the GOP's plans, especially on Medicare. With justification, Roger Hickey points to those efforts as helping toughen the language of the president's talk on the budget.

Another exception: Moveon.org claims to have rallied 10,000 people, along with US Uncut, across the country for Tax Day protests against Bank of America's non-payment of taxes while domestic programs are on the chopping block.

But having a broader impact on Congress, or convincing Democrats and the White House not to throw everything but Medicare under the bus, is still a long way from being realized. That's in part because so much focus is now on preserving the very popular Medicare program while deep budget cuts, especially a flat ceiling on Medicaid spending, and huge tax breaks are getting much less attention.

Yet even labor isn't planning to spend on TV  ads, and a much-touted ad campaign against 25 vulnerable Republicans by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee amounted to just about $6,000. (Hat tip to ABC's Note.) As Roll Call reported:

Republicans and their allies are laughing off the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s latest round of ad buys as “minuscule” and “irrelevant” after discovering the cost of the effort was less than $6,000.

 “At what point does a campaign committee blush when launching a ‘paid advertising campaign?’” asked Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the outside conservative group American Crossroads.

With so little visibility for a progressive vision and activism, after Washington insiders have  treated cutting the deficit—as opposed to job creation—as the nation's top priority, then the drift towards a dangerous  "centrism" becomes much harder to stop.

Indeed, some "bipartisan" deals under serious consideration, for instance, would place a flat limit on domestic spending, thus wiping out the ability of the federal government to aid the jobless, elderly, sick  and poor in times of economic crisis. As a recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted about the Corker-McCaskill spending cap, the  subhead proclaimed that it "Would Force Draconian Cuts in Social Security and Medicare; Make It Harder for Nation to Recover From Recessions."

Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus's "People's Budget" that sharply cuts defense spending, closes loopholes and saves needed domestic programs is largely ignored by the mainstream media and Washington power-players. In March, the caucus announced plans for a  17-city  "Jobs and Economic Justice Tour" later this summer, organized by Change to Win, aiming to raise awareness and support for the broad principles of the People's Budget. But that tour, even if it manages to garner media attention, will take place well after the bruising debt ceiling and budget debates scheduled for the spring. 

The public is on their side, but unless progressives become far more visible and influential on the budget debate, members of Congress will likely have to make the budgetary equivalent of Sophie's Choice. They will be asked to choose between potentially triggering a worldwide depression by failing to raise the debt ceiling—or accepting savage GOP-led budget cuts that could stall a fragile economic recovery and undercut millions dependent on federal programs for help. 

UPDATE: Some angry constituents are starting to raise tough questions at other meetings with members of Congress, a welcome development for progressives, but it's not at all clear that this has much to do with any organizing or outreach by liberal groups that can shape congressional response on the budget. Think Progress reports:

Earlier this week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) held town halls across his district to defend his budget’s plan to end Medicare and extend tax cuts for the wealthy. During a stop in Milton, WI Ryan’s constituents made their feelings apparent, booing down the seven-term congressman when he defended tax breaks for the rich, as ThinkProgress first reported. Yesterday, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) received the same hostile reception from his constituents for voting to end Medicare.

This town hall backlash is now spreading to other districts across the country. As Huffington Post reports, freshmen Reps. Robert Dold (R-IL) and Charlie Bass (R-NH) got an earful from their constituents for voting in favor of the Republican budget this month. During a Buffalo Grove, IL town hall, Dold caught a lot of flack for supporting corporate tax breaks and voting to end Medicare...

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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