How the tax deal debate is shaping up—and why we should remember our real opponents

As far as I can tell, the furious debate over whether the tax deal is good or bad reflects disagreement among Democrats and liberals across three separate dimensions (which is why it will get complicated):

1. Idealists vs. Pragmatists. David Kurtz thinks the main news of Obama’s press conference yesterday is that Obama has finally declared that he’s a pragmatist, not an idealist.  I think that anyone who didn’t know that already was ignoring Obama’s entire biography, let alone his governing style, in favor of a few speeches.  In any case, those who look to a President primarily to articulate their political identity or defend their core principles clearly have reason to be more opposed to the deal than those who see the White House’s job as getting the best outcome in terms of legislation and regulations. In my book Ruling Passions I propose a division of moral labor: idealists should stick to citizen activism—and have a huge and genuine role to play there—while leaving legislation to the pragmatists.  But not everyone thinks that.  Of course, there are plenty of reasons pragmatists might, and do, oppose the deal, but the idealists will likely oppose it more bitterly.

2. Civic republicans vs. non-republican liberals. Civic republicanism (small “r,” of course) is an awkward label for a common position: that the fundamental issue of our time is the ability of the rich, and corporations, to game the political system and prevent the rest of us from exerting true self-governance.  (Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, which I haven’t read yet, sounds from what I’ve heard like a pure instance of this view.  Richard Trumka’s angry statement opposing the deal, with its stress on income inequality and “moneyed interests,” is, perhaps surprisingly, another instance.)  In contrast, a non-republican liberal position is that giving material sustenance to the poor is more important than whether the rich get paid off, however regrettable and undeserved that is.  Randi Rhoads has been pushing this position hard on her show and her blog.  And Obama has explicitly taken it as well.

3. Immediate results people vs. repeated game players. Many of the deal’s supporters (Steve Benen, Ed Kilgore) have started to ask opponents what they propose as the next move if it’s voted down.  We opponents, frankly, don’t have a great answer so much as a different question: how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?.  Everybody, of course, thinks that both the short and the long term are important to some degree.  But the deal’s supporters largely rely on the argument that results now are very important, either because in a recession those who lose benefits will face great and immediate hardship (see James), or because stimulus now will crucially boost Democratic prospects in 2012 (which is, to fill in the minor premise, an unusually important election because of the Affordable Care Act).  Most of the policy wonks, by the way, are lining up behind the deal because their professional deformation is to solve the immediate problem rather than looking at the future negotiating situation it sets up.  As professional biases go, this one’s honorable and functional—but still a bias.

My own all-things-considered opposition reflects my being a pragmatist (with respect to legislative negotiations, not politics as a whole), mostly a liberal but with growing sympathies for republicanism, and a fanatical repeated-gamer.

BUT we have to remember something.  Both sides of these debates have immeasurably more in common with each other than with the Republicans—who want to sabotage Democrats tactically and also destroy them ideologically; dislike the welfare state passionately and on principle while wanting as a matter of principle and practice to give the rich and corporations more money and power, not less; and are excellent players, on the oligarchical side, of both one-shot and repeated games.  Steve is dead right on this.  We should vigorously criticize one another.  But we should save our real outrage for its proper target: Republicans who callously and deliberately held the most vulnerable members of society hostage to the interests of the wealthiest.  Instead, I fear that the humane cop who wants to negotiate with the kidnapper and the tough-minded one who doesn’t will forget who the criminal is.

Update: “Non-republican liberal” seems a bit unfair to the category, since that label defines the school of thought in terms of what it’s not.  With some worries, since the usage is common in social-philosophy debates but can mean something quite different (and pejorative) in American political discourse, I propose calling these kinds of liberals welfarist liberals because their/our main concern is how people’s lives go, not how power is distributed.