Marc Eisner notes the politics of fiscal irresponsibility. Such politics never seem to go out of style. Nevertheless, the coalition government in Great Britain is offering an object lesson in how to build political support for deep, wide-ranging cuts in government spending. With the UK’s finances in even slightly worse shape than the US’s, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have successfully made the case that there is no alternative. Here are some of today’s figures on polling on welfare cuts:
|Making the long term unemployed spend 4 weeks doing unpaid work||All voters||CON voters||LAB voters||LD voters|
|Withdrawing Jobseekers Allowance from those who turn down a job offer or interview||All voters||CON voters||LAB voters||LD voters|
|More stringent testing for people receiving Disability Living Allowance||All voters||CON voters||LAB voters||LD voters|
|Putting a £400 a week maxium on housing benefit||All voters||CON voters||LAB voters||LD voters|
Those are truly massive majorities.The British government is also cutting defense expenditures drastically and means-testing certain benefits, such as child care, so that the middle classes will no longer receive them. These policies are somewhat less popular but still enjoy majority support.
So how did they do it? One of the key requirements for the political “optics” of the cuts was the coalition government. With a social democratic party in the Lib Dems joining the Conservatives in supporting the cuts, the government was shielded from accusations of heartlessness or right-wing mania. Moreover, supporters of both parties outnumber Labour supporters. In the media, key Labour Party figures have been successfully characterized as “deficit deniers,” the people who caused the problem in the first place.
Coalition government is supposed to slow down the pace of change and create gridlock, just like divided government in the U.S. Nevertheless, it has worked well so far for Britain because it allows a formal structure that ties both parties to each other – neither party wants the coalition to fail, which would surely bring on a new election.
Unfortunately, this institutional characteristic of some parliamentary systems – endogenous election timing – is not available to American politicians. Nevertheless, Britain’s experience suggests that one way out of the fiscal mess in the U.S. would be a bipartisan, cross-chamber coalition of sorts, narrowly focused on solving the budget crisis. Given the midterm election results, the popular mandate is there for a radical fiscal house-cleaning, if anyone decides to take it up. Reasonable Republicans and Blue Dogs can join forces to create clear majorities in both houses and negotiate – in hard-fought, late-night sessions if need be – a package of radical spending reductions and tax reforms needed to close the budget gap.
With a bipartisan mandate, who could run against the results? The anti-tax-hike and anti-spending-cut extremists on both sides will be neutralized. President Obama will have no choice but to endorse the outcome of such a negotiation. Imagine if he vetoed the plan. He would clearly be the one responsible for shutting the government down if it came to that. He couldn’t blame the Republicans – because the cutters would have substantial Democratic support. He’d merely be making himself look even more liberal, which I’m sure his political advisors realize is not the key to victory in 2012.
We can dream, can’t we? As unlikely as this scenario sounds, the bottom line is that spending cuts need not be politically toxic. If you frame the debate as one of responsibility versus madness, voters will choose the former.