Has liberalism run amok under President Obama?

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President Obama signs the Violence Against Women Act, which was opposed by 22 Republican senators.
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President Obama signs the Violence Against Women Act, which was opposed by 22 Republican senators.

Much attention has been given to growing extremism in the GOP — but critics say progressives are just as bad

Since President Obama's convincing re-election victory, the dominant political story has centered on whether the GOP should counter right-wing elements within its party and undertake moderate reforms that many argue are necessary for Republicans to return to power. But while a proposed Republican makeover has grabbed all the attention — see the much-publicized "autopsy" this week of Mitt Romney's November defeat — developments within the Democratic Party have largely escaped the microscope.

David Brooks, the center-right columnist at The New York Times, argues that liberals have, in fact, lurched leftward under Obama. Brooks focuses on a budget released by the Congressional Progressive Caucus last week, which calls for a massive $2.1 trillion stimulus program composed of new spending and middle-class tax cuts. All of it would be financed by $4.2 trillion in taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Writes Brooks: 

Today, House progressives are calling for a huge increase in government taxing and spending when none of those conditions apply. Today, progressives are calling on government to be the growth engine in all circumstances. In this phase of the recovery, just as the economy is finally beginning to take off, these Democrats want to take an astounding $4.2 trillion out of the private sector and put it into government where they believe it can be used more efficiently...

The progressive budget in the House seems to have been written by people hermetically sealed in the house of government. They work in government. They represent public-sector workers. They seem to have had little contact with private-sector job creators and no idea about what factors might play in their thinking. It's a reminder that while Republicans may embarrass on a daily basis, many progressives have lost touch with what actually produces growth and prosperity. [The New York Times]

Jumping on Brooks' bandwagon, Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post argues that conservatives' problems "are actually mild compared to the really big problem at the core of liberal statism":

Conservatives are honest enough to have conferences and reports trying to address what ails them; liberals simply deny it. No wonder they ran a presidential election almost entirely devoted to destroying the other side. Now the president resorts to campaigning to avoid the dilemma that he insists on growing government without paying for it. [The Washington Post]

It's certainly true that extremism on the right has deflected attention from problematic issues within the Democratic Party. When a majority of House Republicans votes against aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and against a bill designed to reduce violence against women, it's natural that the spotlight will be on the GOP's divergence from the American mainstream, not the Democrats'. 

Furthermore, Rep. Paul Ryan's recently released budget — which would severely cut aid for the poor, to the benefit of the wealthy — is an easy document for Democrats to hold up as an example of radicalism, all while they fail to address their party's own ideologically dangerous tendencies. 

However, it's important to note that the Congressional Progressive Caucus does not necessarily represent the majority of the Democratic Party in the way that Ryan's budget is a rough stand-in for the GOP's fiscal and economic policy positions. The CPC does not expect its budget to be passed, and in that respect, it's more useful to see it as a statement of political priorities: Reduce unemployment and expand health care, on the backs of the rich. Ryan's budget is similarly political, but the difference, as Erza Klein at the Post writes, is that "House Progressives don't need to govern. The House Republicans do."

While the House Progressives' fantasyland, no-compromise effort is the illustrative position of a group of minority progressives, Ryan's fantasyland, no-compromise effort is the official position of most every Republican. For there to be a deal, the House Progressives don't need to learn how to compromise, though their voting record over the last couple of years shows they're willing to do it anyway. But the House Republicans do need to learn to compromise, and there's not much evidence they're there yet. [The Washington Post]

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these progressives would ever line up behind a budget deal that would put the sacred cows Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block. The GOP's unwillingness to compromise means Democrats haven't really been put to the test, another advantage of governing alongside an obstreperous opposition. 

That said, while our national debt has clearly grown on President Obama's watch, the government has also cut future deficits by $4 trillion over the next 10 years, using a formula in which spending cuts have heavily outweighed tax hikes. Democrats in both chambers of Congress have largely gone along with the spending cuts, even though they target programs that enjoy strong liberal support. And Obama, at least in outline form, has proposed modest reforms to Medicare and Social Security.

The CPC's budget may indeed represent liberalism run wild. But it is hardly a reflection of how liberals have actually governed.

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