Centrist and Clueless

Silly Harold Meyerson! Blue Dogs are in favor of their own reelection, and of collecting lots and lots of cash from special interests!

Until recently, virtually every Democratic member of Congress could be counted on to support some level of countercyclical spending. That was one of the basic ways Democrats distinguished themselves from the laissez-faire right. But today, the Blue Dogs insist on offsetting stimulus with cuts, which can create a self-negating position. Suppose you vote for a stimulus that enables the states to save teachers’ jobs, while offsetting that expenditure at the federal level by reducing spending on, and jobs in, building rail lines. In aggregate economic terms, you may well have zeroed out the net effect of your action. It’s hard to believe that anyone ran for office to craft such exquisitely balanced nullities.

The problem here is that the Blue Dogs, like much of the public, conflate the issues of the nation’s long-term fiscal sustainability with the short-term deficits created by the worst downturn since the ’30s. Thus the Democratic imperative of creating jobs in 2009 became, earlier this year, one of creating jobs and reducing the deficit, and now, for some Blue Dogs, has become chiefly one of reducing the deficit. In polls, meanwhile, the public rates “jobs” as its chief concern, with the deficit lagging far behind. But because this recession is deeper and longer than any since the ’30s; because the job-creating component of the first stimulus, while considerable, was clearly too small; and because the administration did not concentrate those jobs in visible agencies, as Franklin Roosevelt did in the Works Progress Administration, only a minority of Americans credit the stimulus with saving or creating jobs. For millions of Americans, concern over the deficit is at least partly a concern over the government’s broader inability, as yet, to “fix” the economy. Reducing the deficit now, however, will make the economy worse.

Yet the Blue Dogs’ short-term deficit hawkery is more than bad economics. It’s bad politics, too. Even pragmatic centrists — especially pragmatic centrists — have to be in favor of something. The Blue Dogs don’t seem to know what exactly that might be.