Those who would chronicle events in Washington can find no richer source of analogy and metaphor than the Three Stooges. These days, I'm thinking of the times when an exasperated Moe, having suffered the indignity of an accidental spritzing or clobbering, turns to Larry or Curly and demands, "What's the big idea?"
The premise of the debt-ceiling fight is too far-fetched for a Stooges film, since no audience could imagine leaders of a great nation stumbling into such a mess. Moe's trademark line is still relevant, however, even if it's not followed by the two-fingered poke in the eyes that our elected officials richly deserve.
It is clear that unless President Obama ends up taking unilateral action to break a hopeless deadlock, Republicans will win. The House, the Senate and the White House are all working within GOP-defined parameters: New tax revenue is off the table, painful budget cuts are a given, everyone seems to accept the principle that a debt-ceiling increase -- which allows the Treasury to pay bills Congress has already incurred -- must be tied to reductions in future spending.
The biggest sticking point is whether the GOP can force Democrats to climb back into the ring for a rematch next year. And why wouldn't Republicans want another fight? They won the last budget battle, which was over a possible government shutdown, and must feel confident of winning the next one, too. Momentum is on their side, even though they control just one wing of the Capitol -- and even though they advocate measures that most Americans reject.
Conservatives are on a winning streak because they have a Big Idea that serves as an animating, motivating, unifying force. It happens to be a very bad idea, but it's better than nothing -- which, sadly, is what progressives have.
The simplistic Big Idea that defines today's Republican Party is that taxes are always too high and government spending is always wasteful. Therefore, both taxes and spending need to be reduced.
That's basically it. There are a couple of asterisks: Many conservatives, perhaps most, don't consider the military a part of "government" per se and are more amenable to defense spending; and even a tea party freshman is more likely to keep an open mind about the publicly funded infrastructure project in his or her own district. There is also an overarching philosophy about the relationship between government and the individual, and some conservatives imagine a "return" to a Jeffersonian Arcadia that never was.
But the essence of the far right's Big Idea fits neatly on a bumper sticker: Cut taxes, cut spending. It's a simple, powerful message that connects with everyday experience. Who hasn't encountered an example of government waste and inefficiency? Who enjoys paying taxes?
I can think of no greater threat to our nation's prospects than the GOP's policy-by-anecdote crusade against government. The United States is falling behind other nations in infrastructure, education and health care indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy. Income distribution has worsened and upward mobility -- a huge factor in drawing generations of talented immigrants to these shores -- has become sluggish.
At a time when the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels is clear and urgent, Asian and European governments are making major investments in new energy technologies; we lag behind. Money is needed for basic research that might not produce practical results for years -- such as the government-funded research that developed the Internet.
We're wasting human potential. We don't even talk about poverty anymore. In the midst of a profound economic slump, with unemployment at crisis levels, we've just had a long and bitter budget debate that wasn't about how government might try to create jobs. It was about budget cuts that will eliminate jobs.
And what is the progressive response? Basically, all of the above -- which doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. Democrats have utterly failed to develop and communicate a Big Idea of their own.
Obama talks about "winning the future," but that's too nebulous. I'd suggest something pithier: jobs, jobs, jobs.
People may dislike paying taxes, but they dislike unemployment more. Progressives should talk about bringing the nation back to full employment and healthy growth -- and how this requires an adequately funded government to play a major role.
The next time Moe asks about the big idea, Democrats, say "jobs." You might avoid a slap on the noggin and a poke in the eyes.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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