“It’s not something we’ve done with a meat axe,” Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News in defense of the administration’s FY 2006 budget. Cheney’s words bring to mind the first rule in deciphering the Bush code of conduct: Reverse what they say to divine what they’ll do.
This budget goes straight for the jugular, proposing $212 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary programs over the next five years, coupled with tax cuts for the rich that aim to radically shrink government and anger middle- and low-income voters. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, described the doctrine to U.S. News & World Report: “The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood.”
The audacity of these cuts lays bare yet another Republican strategy: Overshoot the mark, call anyone who questions you partisan and then look “compassionate” by offering a small concession. To wit, as happened in early January: Have your party’s right flank propose to dramatically weaken House ethics rules, and then appear reasonable when this proposal is scaled back to a seemingly minor rule change that still effectively protects Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The Bush administration sets its targets and pursues them with no qualm or quarter; the budget is more mean than lean. Children (remember: reverse!) are left behind in droves; Almost one third of the programs selected for cuts are in education, including $400 million for after-school programs and $300 million for vocational education. Funding for national parks and clean water is on the chopping block. Soldiers seem to be worth more dead than alive — a Pentagon-backed bill in Congress would raise soldiers’ death benefits from $12,420 to $100,000, but the proposed budget would double prescription drug prices for veterans. The poor and elderly are also out of luck: Cuts are proposed for Medicare, job-training programs, food stamps and heating subsidies.
Meanwhile, the Bush darlings — the military, corporations and the ultrarich — benefit not only from increased budget spending, but from the promise of such extra-budgetary sops as the continuation of current tax cuts and the generation of fat financial fees for proposed Social Security “personal accounts.” All of this contributes to a mounting deficit that the administration cynically uses to justify future Social Security cuts.
Of course, this budget won’t pass without a fight — but that’s the point. Democrats — estranged from and ashamed of their progressive flank — wear themselves out to retain gains gruelingly won through nearly a century of grassroots action. Weak protests about the White House’s “wrong priorities” make little headway against Republicans who shamelessly trumpet their ill-founded and contradictory creed.
On the defensive, Democrats cast about for a narrative, grasping at pale imitations of the tactics that work wonders for the right. This dynamic played out in the Democratic responses to the State of the Union address. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tried for homespun and small-town, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi played the fear card. Like adults trying too hard to be cool, it all rang false.
The Democrats need to commit to a firm set of principles sturdy enough to block the Bush administration’s meat-cleaver politics. Through a little overreaching of their own, the Democrats could not only widen the spectrum of political possibility but also ignite the same passions that animated former populist movements.
Some signs are hopeful. A few brave members of Congress, like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), continue to boldly speak out against Republican tactics. Howard Dean is a lock for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. And his popular 2004 campaign, along with the election efforts of grassroots groups like Rainbow/PUSH, have spurred the formation of the Progressive Democrats of America, a group dedicated to retaking the Democratic Party from corporate influence, state by state.
We need more of this — and fast.