What’s the future of the safety net?

The House vote will have happened by the time you read this, but no matter what happens, the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent really gets to the heart of the fight: What’s the future of the safety net?

One way to understand the fiscal cliff compromise which passed the Senate this morning is through the prism of the larger question at the heart of this whole fight: What should the safety net of the 21st century look like, and who should pay for it?

Presuming the Senate deal passes the House, what happened yesterday is that Democrats scored a victory on part two of that question — albeit only a partial one — while successfully deferring the epic, looming battle over the first part of it. Meanwhile, Republicans retained their leverage heading into round two, and thanks to the way things unfolded, they will likely walk into it more confident of winning major future concessions.

The good news is that for now, the basic social contract underlying the progressive reforms of the last century remains intact. Neither the rise in the Medicare eligibility age nor the Chained CPI for Social Security happened; Democrats have temporarily held off the GOP drive to cut the safety net. Meanwhile, Democrats finally broke the GOP’s opposition to the rich paying more in taxes — the party’s organizing principle for years now — successfully making the tax code somewhat more progressive. The short term big picture is that Dems won on two major fronts — no entitlements cuts, and tax hikes for the rich — which helps explain conservative rage over the deal.

So why are liberals also angry? Partly because this was only a partial Dem victory, since Dems agreed to a higher income threshold ($400,000 for individuals and $450,000) and made concessions on the estate tax. That didn’t have to happen, since doing nothing — and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire — would have meant even more in revenues from the rich.

As Paul Krugman’s calculations show, this may not really have cost Dems all that much in new revenues. The more serious problem for liberals is what the outcome says about what comes next. Obama had repeatedly insisted he would not budge off his demand that taxes go up on all income over $250,000. That obviously didn’t happen. The risk is that this will set a bad precedent for the next round in this fight, in which Republicans will hold the debt ceiling hostage to extract the deep cuts to entitlements they want. It’s reasonable to worry that today’s outcome, by signaling Obama’s over-emphasis on getting a deal for its own sake, will set the stage for a cave later.

It’s on Obama to prove those worries unfounded. Obama has pledged to win more in new revenues from the rich via tax reform, has vowed not to agree to any deficit reduction that relies only on spending cuts, and continues to insist on a “balanced” approach. Only Obama, however, can ultimately define what he means by “balanced.” Liberals must continue to insist that this means that the sacrifice necessary to reducing the deficit will not borne by the poor or seniors who can’t afford it.

Some of us have been telling you for a very long time that Obama wants to be the Democratic president who erodes the safety net. There’s nothing as strong as a mobilized netroots to fight back — but the part we didn’t anticipate is that so many of you would refuse to believe it.

Well, I hope you believe it now. Obama is actually inviting a situation where he can be “forced” to cut Social Security and Medicare, under the self-created debt ceiling crisis. Why do I say self-created? Because Obama has other options. He can cite the 14th Amendment and simply ignore the House (the argument being that if Congress already appropriated an expenditure, the ability to execute debt to achieve it is inherent.

The other alternative is to order the creation of platinum coins. He’s not likely to do either, because (as people like me and Digby have been trying to tell you), he really does want to cut Social Security and Medicare.

So here’s what I’m saying. If we’re right, it’s important that, as Greg says, we are the ones who define what balance is; the poor and vulnerable are not the people who should be paying for this deficit hawkery, and you need to call your representative and tell them so. (As Amato just pointed out, we shouldn’t be playing this deficit reduction game in the first place.)

And if we’re wrong, you don’t lose a darned thing by calling your congress critters and raising holy hell. Just in case.

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