Ryan Lizza's new article in The New Republic debuts the White House's new angle on the budget battle: in an era of declining surpluses and worsening economic numbers the public doesn't care about the budget or the surplus nearly so much as it cares about the economy. That means that all the Democratic carping about the surplus and the Social Security lockbox will pale in comparison to the White House's arguments that more spending (from the Social Security surplus) and perhaps still more tax cuts are just what the economy needs to get back on track.
At least that's what the White House hopes.
This is all grist for the mill for the things we're going to be talking about during this just-beginning budget battle. But let's start with a few points. I'm willing to concede that the Democrats, as yet, have been remarkably slow-footed in framing this debate. But it seems to me that there is a pretty clear problem with the White House's apparent strategy.
According to Lizza, one White House aide says that in contrast to Democratic yapping about the by-gone surplus the Republican line will be "`Where did the prosperity go and how do we get it back?"
The real problem here is timing and perception. Presidents don't do well blaming Congresses for economic hard times. That's just in the nature of the American political system. And it's even more so when the economy went bad on the administration's watch.
Yes, I know, I know, we now know the economy was decelerating rapidly even before the President took the oath of office. For my money, the primary culprit is Alan Greenspan's Fed, which ramped up interest rates during an energy shock in a quest to fight off inflation which (outside the volatile energy sector) showed every sign of being utterly non-existent.
But tell me, are your eyes starting to glaze over? If so, that means you're like most voters. Because all of these details are utterly beside the point. The bottom line is that the previous administration presided over one of the best economies in decades -- and one with astonishingly low levels of unemployment. So the current administration is just not in a position to make the case, as the Reagan White House did, that it needs time to fix the dreadful economy the previous administration created. (In fact, look at the 1982 election returns: it didn't even work for Reagan.) To the public, Clinton was good economic times, Bush is worsening economic times. Simple as that.
There's something else that follows from this. If the economy ran so well under Clinton's economic policies how credible is the argument that the economy can only be revived with a completely different set of economic policies? Answer: not very credible.
There's more to say about this (and we'll be saying it), but for the moment just keep in mind that this administration has a reputation for confidently spinning out wildly improbable political scenarios, thinking they can pull it off with just a big bluff. So far it hasn't worked and I doubt it will this time either.
And of course we haven't even gotten to the massive hit to the president's credibility from the lies and broken promises about the tax cut and Social Security. But let's leave that till the next post, because I want to go eat breakfast.