Deficits and Delegates

David Corn’s soon-to-be released new book Showdown examines the pivot to address deficits in the summer of 2010-11. Many Democrats were bewildered that the administration would move on to the GOP’s turf and begin addressing the problem of deficits and debt (one might pause for a moment and ask whether there is any empirical evidence to suggest that the GOP—or either of the major parties—can make a claim to being the party of fiscal responsibility).  After all, there were many on the left that were making a powerful argument that the stimulus was insufficient and now was not the time to move to anything remotely resembling austerity (one might pause again and ask how reducing the pace of expansion can be cast as austerity, but again, I digress).

The answer, as revealed in some excerpts in Greg Sargent’s Plum Line (WaPo) was strictly poll driven:

Plouffe was concerned that voter unease about the deficit could become unease about the president. … voters needed to know — or feel — that the president could manage the nation’s finances. The budget was a test of government competence — that is, Obama’s competence.

And on a meeting of February 2011:

With Sperling sitting in on the presentation, Garin reinforced the White House view that Democrats had to up their game on deficit reduction. His firm had conducted extensive polling and focus groups. He told the senators that voters saw jobs as the most pressing priority. This might seem to support those Democrats who believed Obama had gone too far overboard on the deficit-reduction cruise. But when asked what the president and Congress should do to boost job creation, most voters said reduce the deficit and the debt. They had imbibed the GOP message; the problem with the economy was governmental red ink.

What I find particularly disturbing—even if unsurprising—is the following:

  1. We have an extraordinarily devastating problem: the slow pace of recovery and job creation.
  2. Those with a seat at the table understand the problem in Keynesian terms. They have a clear understanding of causality grounded in Keynesianism and a set of clear policy prescriptions that are drawn from theory.
  3. They nonetheless cast aside these policy prescriptions because—drum roll—voters embrace a faulty understanding of the economy and assume that deficits lead to unemployment.  They will not buy anything the Democrats have to say about the recovery if they do not believe that the administration is committed to deficit reduction.

Note: I am not concerned here with whether Keynesianism provides the best guidance to economic policymaking. Rather, it is the willingness of elected officials to embrace policies that they believe will be counterproductive simply because it sells before focus groups.

As Edmund Burke noted when arguing that representatives should be trustees rather than mere delegates: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” One would only wish that elected officials of both parties would spend less time with focus groups and more time with Burke, at least when thinking about representation.

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