Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bernie Sanders

Vermont's U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a hero for speaking truth to power, something he has been doing his entire life, regardless of whether it's been politically popular. He's one of the few public officials who has entered the U.S. Senate chamber and not become co-opted by it. Now, I may be biased as a former Vermonter who watched his rise from third-party also-ran to mayor of Burlington to U.S. congressman to U.S. senator. Bernie is genuine, he is forthright, perhaps a bit holier than thou at times. He is the real deal.

Check out his 13-minute speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on November 30, 2010 providing a compelling and detailed analysis of historic economic inequality in America and the duplicity of Republicans talking woefully about the national debt and budget deficit one minute and pushing as their top priority tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires that would break the bank the next. Sanders is one of the few national leaders making any sense today and putting economic inequality and proposed tax breaks into historical context. It's probably because he is one of the few that actually cares.

On Saturday, we watched as Republicans voted in lockstep against two alternatives to extending the Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans regardless of income. One proposal would have extended tax cuts to all families first $250,000; another to all families' first million. Even millionaires and billionaires would have continued to enjoy lower taxes on some of their income. Alas, why should the rich settle for half a loaf?

Who else thinks that the current policy debate over tax policy in Washington is absolutely insane? Not enough of us. One who does is Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who in the New York Times on December 3, 2010, laid much of the blame on President Obama:
It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right.
Sad, but true.

I recognize that this issue isn't specifically about education, but it is inexorably linked. Given President Obama's apparent unwillingness to go to the mat for Democratic principles (and his own campaign pledge!), Republicans have succeeded in extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires -- not just for the first $250,000 or $1,000,000 of their income, but all of it up to infinity. The total cost of all the proposal's tax cuts is $900 billion. Republicans' likely next step is too take off their "tax cutter" hat and don their "deficit hawk" cap, saying that the federal government is living beyond its means, and will fire away at domestic spending. You don't think education will avoid being in their crosshairs at that time, do you? You know that this is more than simply a ploy to line the pockets of rich Americans, right? It's part of a plan to bleed government dry and then argue that government programs need to be reduced, eliminated or privatized. [UPDATE: The deal is a "budget buster." (The Atlantic)]

Now, there are would-be Democrats who are in denial and are not considering this likely outcome at all. Rather than reserving their scorn for Republican tax policy, they are attacking progressive Democrats and the likes of Bernie Sanders. Shame on them.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the President suffered a split lip in a pick-up basketball game. How I wish he were as willing to put his body on the line for economic fairness as he was for a rebound!

I am encouraged that Senator Sanders has expressed a willingness to use the filibuster to put the breaks on extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. God knows that Republicans have used the filibuster -- or the threat of one -- for dozens of nefarious purposes, including preventing extensions of unemployment insurance, regulation of Wall Street, and recently more rationale tax cut extension proposals. Imagine! A progressive willing to stand up for what's right and not "punt on third down," to use the words of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.

At this time, I couldn't be more disappointed in President Obama. I have always been a political realist, voting for the "least bad" candidate when necessary, and a life-long Democrat. I honestly don't know what I might do in 2012. I literally couldn't sleep the other night, I was so angry. Maybe it's time to follow Robert Reich's lead and form a "Peoples' Party."

Rhetorically, President Obama is making the same mistake over and over again, putting bipartisanship ahead of smart public policy. I am not criticizing the President because I wrongly fancied him a liberal. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was one of his chief campaign pledges for Chrissakes! I'm criticizing him on the substance of the issue, for walking away from a campaign promise (without fighting for it), and for making the same tactical mistake he made during the health care battle: working feverishly to assemble a bipartisan coalition for health care reform when there was no real willingness among Republicans to meet in the middle. In the current case, he horse-traded away a key campaign plank and agreed to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years plus deeper estate tax cuts, while only receiving a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits and one year of payroll tax cuts.

I'll give the New York Times the last word. In this morning's editorial, it writes:
President Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend all the Bush-era income tax cuts is a win for the Republicans and their strategy of obstructionism and a disappointing retreat by the White House....

The Republicans gave up very little except for their unconscionable stance of holding up all other Congressional action until they ensured that the richest Americans keep their tax cuts.

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