Monday, April 11, 2011

Budget Fear and Trembling

Yes, we know that a cut of $38 billion is nothing. But it is a start. And President Obama "the follower" is promising deficit reduction on Wednesday.

But it is counterproductive to go for the jackpot in one throw of the dice. Think what would happen if Republicans got all they wanted right now. Here's what would happen. The current crisis would recede; the alarm bells would stop clanging. Politics would go back to normal.

The fact is that the beneficiaries of government spending will only agree to cuts when they are frightened--or at least when the American people are frightened enough to harden their hearts against the usual rhetoric about women and minorities hardest hit.

The only way to get real reform of government spending and real reform of entitlements is to maintain the fear, the real fear of government default. Only in a climate of fear will the politicians reform the government.

We all get upset when the other guys use fear. Liberals hated it when conservatives chanted that "The Russians are Coming." Conservatives hated it when, back in the 1960s, liberals forecast "a long hot summer" if important social programs weren't passed. But the truth is that nothing happens unless one side or the other gets afraid.

We know how this works from recent history. Back in the early 1990s national politics was defined by the budget deficit, and Presidents Bush and Clinton used the fear to raise taxes. Speaker Gingrich used the fear to cut spending. But in 1998 the budget went into balance, and people breathed a sigh of relief. And they signed on to more spending. And more and more spending until the mortgage meltdown of 2008. Now we are back into a budget fear cycle, and the American people are afraid enough to agree to spending cuts.

Rush Limbaugh this morning is skeptical about the MSM mantra that Speaker Boehner cleaned President Obama's clock. They are just ginning up their base, he warns. But I think that some different is happening. The Democrats need to lower the expectations of their base. They need to lead them, at least for now, into a tactical retreat and still the voices calling for an all-out dog-fight. Then, after another couple of skirmishes, maybe they will call for a strategic retreat.

The number one priority for a general is to keep his army together and avoid a decisive defeat in which his army is routed and falls apart. In such a defeat a number of formations will become so disorganized that they cease to exist.

But Republicans should not seek a decisive battle yet. Democrats are too strong for that. Maybe after a year or two of dispiriting retreat and demoralizing desertions: maybe then there will be the chance for a decisive battle on the right ground that favors a big Republican win.

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