Self-fulfilling Prophecy Department: The Democratic “Punt”

On the tax cuts, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid made the best of bad situation; blaming them for caving risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Josh Marshall and Jonathan Chait are fighting back aneurysms upon hearing the news that Capitol Hill Democrats will not put forth a bill maintaining middle-class tax cuts.

But Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren’t stupid.  They did what they had to do.  This was the best of a bad series of choices.

Here were their options:

1)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill free-standing in the House.  The Republicans would offer a “Motion to Recommit” to the Ways and Means Committee with instructions to include the tax cuts for the rich.  With Blue Dog support, it would have won.  No go.

2)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill freestanding in the Senate.  The Republicans would offer an amendment to include the tax cuts for the rich.  It could have won:  41 Republicans plus Lieberman, Lincoln, Pryor, Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Bayh, Hagan, Dorgan, Baucus, Conrad, and then maybe Bill Nelson, Webb, or Warner.  Then where would you be?

3)  Bring up the middle-class tax cut bill free-standing in the House under a “Suspension of the Rules,” which requires a two-thirds vote and is not subject to the Motion to Recommit.  My favorite option, because theoretically, the Republicans would be in a bind.  Either they would vote no, in which case they would have voted no on a tax cut, or they would have voted yes, in which case the Dems win and they tick off their base.  BUT — they probably would have split, meaning that the Dems would not have not gotten a win AND the partisan difference would have been muddied.

In other words, there was no way to get an actual win under these circumstances.  You could only get a loss that would muddy the partisan split.

Under these circumstances, Pelosi and Reid decided not to have the vote.  Why?  Because you can still make the issue about it being the “Republicans holding the bill hostage.”  You can still say that the Republicans won’t vote for a middle-class tax cut unless they borrow $700 billion dollars to give to millionaires and billionaires.  President Obama still has the biggest megaphone in the country, and to his great credit, he is using it.  Just an hour or so after the decision was announced, he was blaming the Republicans for holding middle-class tax cuts hostage.

In other words, you can go to the country with a clear message, and without the picture of Democrats reprising the circular-firing squad.  It’s not perfect, but it’s the best of all possible situations given the unprecedented plutocratic obstructionism of the GOP.

Ironically, though, critics like Marshall and Chait could undermine the strategy if the meme becomes “Democrats cave.”  If instead the meme becomes, “Democrats refuse to borrow $700 billion to pay off billi0naires,” then it looks like they are stronger, not weaker.  Marshall and Chait are calling it like they see it, and I take their points, but they are creating some bad spin here: let’s not let the complaints become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

33 thoughts on “Self-fulfilling Prophecy Department: The Democratic “Punt””

  1. Sorry Zas, I'm more likely to understand that 1st meme, has a catchier title to it. Given the Dems' recent history, Blue Dog or not, and our reality-celebutard culture of famous for being famous, too many others will think the same way. They did cave, there is no long game here. No 12-dimensional chess. It's touchy-feely emotion time, and cowardice is as cowardice does.

  2. Let's assume that all of this is exactly right. How does having a senior Democratic aide announce the Democrats' preemptive surrender add value? The ensuing meme seems quite predictable, and hardly unreasonable.

    Can't they at least pretend to fight?

  3. Yes, I get the feeling here that the premise of the argument is that the Dems can't fight their way out of a paper bag.

    A paper bag that is outside. In February. In Seattle. Therefore, so hey! they made the best of a bad situation because they can't campaign worth a ding-dang!.I'm so relieved.

  4. Marshall and Chait are calling it like they see it, and I take their points, but they are creating some bad spin here: let’s not let the complaints become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I think they are right and you are wrong. What exactly are the GOP obstructing here? They can't obstruct anything in the House. So it's on the odious Blue Dogs there, not the Pukes. And in the Senate, make the New England three sink or swim. Does Scott Brown want to remain in the Senate after 2012? How about Olympia Snowe?

  5. One other question. Given the majorities in both houses(and people don't care about procedural BS), how can this end anyway but badly. It tells me that Pelosi is willing to let herself be undermined by Steny Hoyer. It also tells me that the Blue Dogs are dumber than Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell.

  6. I think if Obama barnstormed around the country, had his liberal allies on Capitol Hill swarm Blue Dogs, and threaten these scorpions (as in the scorpion and the frog story), he would have peeled off enough of them–gutless they are at the end of the day–and won. Instead, the Scorpion (Blue Dogs) will lose, Grayson will win, and yet that won't be enough proof that people like Democrats who fight for them. There are even Republicans in Grayson's district who like Grayson because he fights for them…That's the amazing part: How blind the Capitol Hill Village experts are to the reality that Blue Dogs lost in 1994 and will lose again in 2010.

  7. Caught the re-run of Keith w/ Michael Moore. So, those 2, + Rachel, + Chait and TPM, Greg Sargent and Steven Benen; all of them mystified by just how cowardly the Dems' decision appears. Seems some pretty heavy lifting on the 1st meme team. Meme Machine, Meme Machine.

  8. …in their relentless urge to punish the hardworking, successful jobmakers for their success the Obama administration is allowing what it describes as "crippling tax hikes" on the already-suffering middle class go through and then insist it was the republicans' fault?…

    That's me playing Devil's Advocate with the spin… do they really think they can win a war of soundbites with republicans on this? Soundbites is all they do. It's how they govern. And that's assuming it isn't just a bullshit attempt for the Dems to protect their own asses (because they were so smoooth that no one could tell…)

  9. I don't know how dumb the electorate is. I mean that literally: I do not know. If I did, then I would be able to judge between Jonathan Zasloff and Josh Marshall about tactics.

    What I take for granted is that the important thing for Democrats to do is convince the electorate that Dems want the Obama Tax Cut and the GOP wants the Bush Tax Cut. Staging votes in either House is probably not necessary for the well-informed part of the electorate, and probably not effective for the FOX-informed part of the electorate. Most voters already know, I think, that Republicans want tax cuts for the rich — because Republicans keep saying so themselves. Every chance they get. On TV. And I mean the TV people still watch, not C-Span.

    For once, we have an election issue where both sides agree what the question IS. The question is NOT, "Will your taxes go up if you make under $250K a year?" Democrats don't want them to, Republicans don't want them to, and the electorate knows it. The question is, "Shall we raise taxes on the 2-3% of people who make over $250K?" Republicans and Democrats agree that THAT'S THE QUESTION. Voters, likely or registered or apathetic, already get that. Holding a vote in Congress would not give the Democrats (or the Republicans, for that matter) a talking point they don't already have. We know what the question is; we know where each party stands.

    What we don't know is whether the electorate is dumb enough to prefer the GOP position.

    Of course, "Democratic position" is just shorthand. There is such a thing as THE Republican position. We know how every Republican in Congress would vote, whenever the vote is held, however the vote is framed. The Blue Dogs and the Liebermans are a different story. I believe that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid want the vote in Congress to come out correctly (yes to enacting the Obama Tax Cut; no to extending the Bush Tax Cut) because the vote in Congress is not just political theater. It's how laws get made. So if they don't have the votes to make the right law now, I can't blame them for not holding the vote, now. Sure, they're even less likely to have the votes after the mid-terms. But making a bad law, now, would be even worse than making a bad law later.


  10. Was number 2 a possibility? According to Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives…"

  11. That all sounds good except for the fact that the Democratic caucus, weak as it is, should still be willing to stick together to pass this. Secondly, how does waiting until after the election help?

  12. Well, that takes us through the election. What happens afterward? I'm not sure how the motivations change. Do the Democrats try again? If Republicans romp, can Obama's veto keep them from reinstating the Bush tax cuts?

  13. "Was number 2 a possibility? According to Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives…”"

    That requirement is currently 'interpreted' as meaning that, when the Senate originates a revenue bill, it has to use a House bill number. IOW, it's one of the many clauses of the Constitution which have been rendered a dead letter.

    Anyway, it occurs to me that, given scenarios 1 and 2, Johnathan sees the job of the Congressional leadership as thwarting the will of the majority of members of both houses. If this is what a "Democratic" party does, I'd hate to see an "Undemocratic" party…

  14. You do realize that Obama isn't cutting checks and sending them to the "millionaires and billionaires" right?

  15. What happens legislatively after the ideal bill (keeping the middle class tax cuts and allowing the tax for rich to expire) loses? Yes, the Dems have a great campaign issue, if you want the election to be posed as a "Ultra-Left Obama and Pelosi Stopped by Sensible Bi-Partisan Coalition". But then what happens? Are you going to reverse it after the election when the GOP will be stronger, if not in control? Not likely. There's 700 billion dollars at stake here, and the best chance to start raising revenue for public investment and addressing the deficit. The bill matters, not as a campaign prop, but as public policy. Why do we hate Pelosi and Reid for doing their jobs, which is to move legislation through their respective Houses?

  16. I, too, think allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire is the right thing to do. To cut taxes in what has clearly proven to be a deflationary period, will simply act to prolong the deflationary period, not shorten it.

    Please see: "Tax cuts not the way to fix economy" and "How a touch of inflation could boost the economy" to fully understand why tax cuts in a deflationary period will not stimulate the ecomony, only prolong the deflationary period.

    To make my long story short:

    "Clearly, the problem with our economy is consumers, who are 70 percent of the economy. They can't or won't buy enough to turn the economy around until they are convinced the economy will stabilize and strong economic growth lies ahead of them. In such a case, tax cuts for the middle class will not stimulate the economy. If left to their own devises, the consumers will do what to them is the naturally prudent thing to do in hard economic times…save more, spend less."…Robert Reich

    "What we need for this economy to turn around is to place more money in the hands of those consumers who will be forced by their own dire circumstances to spend what little they receive just to stay afloat i.e. the poor, the unemployed, the 60 to 67 year old unemployed, welfare recipients, food stamps. On a temporary basis, of course, perhaps for five years.

    "With an extra $3 trillion spent in this fashion over the next five years we can accomplish two things: First, stimulate the economy directly and secondly, help those most in need of financial help in these hard economic times for the common good of all. "

    ex animo


  17. The bottom line is that the Bush tax cuts for earners above $250k has majority support in the CURRENT Congress. The composition of this Congress is going to be more favorable to those tax cuts immediately after the elections and far more favorable to them after the start of the new Congress in January of next year. The only way that those high income tax cuts will not be extended is if President Obama vetoes them.

  18. Brett has this one exactly right. Where have all the complaints about procedural roadblocks to thwart the majority gone, now that the majority wants tax cuts?

  19. This is just a losing issue for Dems. Whatever you say, most people perceive that continuation of middle class tax rates is being held hostage by Dem leadership to a tax increase for upper middle class and wealthy business owners who provide jobs. Efforts to spin will only impress people who are going to fail to turn out this November. No way out.

  20. Why should I bother to vote if–even with a Democratic majority–the Republicans still run congress? I'm ready to give up on the Democrats again. It's time for a new party that believes in something and has the stones to do it.

  21. Marshall said that Democrats caved. He didn't say Pelosi and Reid caved. Your argument is that they made the best of a bad situation, and that the situation was bad because of conservadems. I read Marshall as denouncing he conservadems. Your critique is based on the assumption that "Democrats" must mean "Pelosi and Reid".

    Of course it is possible that the conservadems did not cave and that they are sincere supply side loonies who support tax cuts for the rich, because they think they are good policy and who have sincerely forgotten their distress over deficits. However, they are clearly either cowards or fools or both.

    Not all of the senators on your list made it clear that they are cowards or fools or both. I think that it would be better for the party to only note bluedogness (a ness monster ?) when it is made explicit by a signature on one of those letters to Pelosi or a formal public announcement.

    Finally neither you nor Marshall are hacks and you call them as you see them whether it is good for the party or not. This is best in the long run especially since you have sophisticated readers.

  22. I don't think that your scenario #2 is correct. Amendments can be filibustered, which means that it would take 60 votes to get the top end tax cut added to the bill. Even with your maybes, you have only reached 55 that would vote for that.

  23. All of this interest in political kabuki seems to me to be deliberately designed to rationalize away the need to confront the larger failure of democracy. Much better to blame Marshall and Chait for "creating bad spin", and absolve Obama and the Democratic Leadership for incompetence or bad faith, than to face the hard, depressing reality.

    What digby wrote:

    "The big problem for the rest of us, of course, is that if they don't vote on extending the tax cuts before the election, it's far less likely to pass. The arrogant Republicans of this lame duck congress will be screaming to high heaven about mandates and 'consequences' and demanding that the congress and the White House fulfill the 'will of the people' or they will burn the place down. And the Dems will acquiesce.

    "If they don't vote on this now, and win, it ain't happening short of a huge upset in the election. That could happen of course, but it's pretty clear that nobody's counting on it. The upshot is that all the Bush tax cuts are probably going to be extended. They'll 'compromise' by sunsetting it until just before the presidential election — when they can run the same game again."

    We have majority rule in this country, if and only if that majority is Republican and pro-plutocratic. That's the problem revealed here for the umpteenth time in 15 years.

  24. The Republican response to this, aside from peals of laughter, will be to run ads saying "Firstly, how can we be holding tax cuts hostage? The Dems control Congress and won't even have a vote on it!" Which leads to "The must mean they want all the tax cuts to expire and RAISE YOUR TAXES BY 4 BILLION DOLLARS!"

    The Dems should have had the votes. If they lost, they could say "Hey, we tried. Blame the Republicans; they voted against it."

  25. No, Mr. Zasloff, you are surely wrong IMHO. Without a vote, then all taxes would go up. The Dems needed to hold a vote on a bill just to extend the middle class tax cuts to show everyone who would vote yes or no, and use that. So what if the vote was "fractured." The technical triangulation is not what matters either to one's base, to the voting public, or to one's enemies. What matters is trying to get what you think is right and looking strong whatever the outcome of the vote. Democrats will fail and fail until they get the point of this basic fact of life and human nature. Nerds lose.

  26. The Democrats are spineless. This is really simple. You tell the Blue dogs that if they vote against extending $250,000- tax cuts they are kicked out of the caucus and they lose all their committee seats, permanently. Those committee seats are gone even if they caucus Republican, at least whenever there's a Democratic majority, because the majority has the constitutionally dictated power to set rules and a Democratic majority will set rules in such a way.

    If you can't play hardball, get off the field.

  27. nothing matters the teapublican'ts have these weak cowards right where they want them,dems will extend tax cuts for the wealthy for 2 yrs at least,then the teapublican'ts will campaign on the rising debt blaming OBAMA??? PERFECT


  29. Alfo, your call for a blue dog purge is very logical, but it would play right into the GOP's hands. Those seats would all go Republican if Blue Dogs and New Dems weren't running, and the GOP would have a sustainable majority. Pelosi's strategy has been to elect conservative Dems in those districts and call in the votes she needs when things get tough on issues that Dems are really committed to (like health care).

    Fact is the country is still center right and "progressive" issues will always have very limited days in the sun, such as in the last two years. Question rankling conservatives is how much they can roll back when they resume a working majority.

  30. 3) "…Either they would vote no, in which case they would have voted no on a tax cut, or they would have voted yes, in which case the Dems win and they tick off their base. …" blows me away! I don't know any Dems, Progressives, or Liberals who think Middle Class taxbreaks are unreasonable! Are you saying that the Dem base is blue dog conservative? What makes you assert that? There is no majority consisting of blue dogs in the party.

  31. If instead the meme becomes, “Democrats refuse to borrow $700 billion to pay off billi0naires,” then it looks like they are stronger, not weaker.

    This would make sense if Obama were threatening to veto tax cuts for the rich. As it is, it looks like Democrats are only refusing to borrow that money today, but sometime before expiration they'll cave in. Why should we think things will be any easier after November? The only way to look stronger is to actually make it look probable that you'll get your way.

    Also, I wonder if the presence of an Obama veto threat would make any of your three options look different. If Blue dogs knew that by voting for the amendment they were killing the tax bill, that might have some effect.

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