Muddying The Budget Waters

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JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 25, 2011

Muddying The Budget Waters

If you only learn one fact about American politics, it ought to be that Americans hate government in the abstract and favor it in the specific. That basic truth determines the shape of political debates over and over. House Republicans were elected while railing against government in the abstract. Through powerful tools of self-delusion, this persuaded them that Americans favor their agenda in its specifics. This is utterly untrue, as one remarkably blunt Republican admits to Peter Wallsten of the Washington Post:

“Republicans don’t want to be talking about Medicare every day for the next year and a half,” said a Republican Party official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address internal strategy deliberations. “But if they keep the conversation on broader issues of spending and taxes, they can win.”

The GOP official added that the party “can fight the Medicare issue to a tie” by “muddying the waters” and painting Democrats as choosing status-quo options that would have Medicare “die a slow death.”

That's a perfectly dead-on analysis. Republicans need to keep the debate focused on "the broader issue," rather than on the specific things they propose to do. Cutting taxes for the rich is unpopular, and cutting Medicare is highly unpopular. Connecting the two is really unpopular. When confronted with the specifics, they need to muddy the waters.

Here's a good example of water-muddying, conveyed in a report by Kathleen Hennessey of the L.A. Times:

Standing in a brightly lit bingo hall off a wooded road, a space that doubles as the dining room for Danny's Friday night fish fry, Republican Rep. Charles Bass should have felt a long way from the pressure-cooker of budget politics in Washington.

But as he opened a town hall meeting here last week, it was clear the pressure had followed him to American Legion Post No. 59.

What is his rationale for wanting to change Medicare to a voucher system, questioners demanded to know. How is this going to lower premiums? If the idea is to cut the deficit, why does the Republican budget plan offer tax breaks for the wealthy? ...

That provision proved problematic for some GOP lawmakers meeting voters back home. At a town hall in Milton, Wis., opponents booed and heckled Ryan as he explained his rationale for lowering taxes for the wealthy. The scene was captured on video and publicized by the liberal website ThinkProgress.

Bass, for his part, struggled with the tax part of the plan, flatly denying that the proposal would cut taxes on wealthy individuals and saying incorrectly that the reduction applied only to corporations.

He later told a reporter he wasn't sure exactly what the budget resolution would do: "It's unclear to me whether it's a corporate tax cut or a personal tax cut," he said, suggesting he might not support a lowering of the individual rate.

That would be a decision for another day, he said. The budget resolution is just a guide for committees as they write legislation. Things change. The process is in flux.

"This is the debate we should be having," he said. "I'm not right on everything, and when people say you're wrong, I'm listening. I enjoy it."

Now, it's hard to separate how much of the muddying is Bass honestly not understanding the budget he voted for, and how much is him deliberately obfuscating. But when you're trying to convert abstract beliefs into support for wildly unpopular particulars, obfuscation is pretty much the only play.

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posted in: jonathan chait, l.a., the washington post, charles bass, kathleen hennessey, peter wallsten, peter wallsten, medicare, republican party

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