Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Barney Fife Budget

I can't add much to the DLC's take on Bush's budget, other than to underline the cynicism of the administration on this topic. You really get the sense that half of OMB was engaged in an effort to cook the books in the most extravagant way possible, while the other half scrounged around the files looking for every half-baked conservative "savings" idea that's emerged over the last thirty years. The product certainly hasn't fooled Democrats, hasn't fooled the financial community, and apparently hasn't fooled Hill Republicans, especially the small but noisy band of fiscal hawks to whom this budget was telegraphed as an early Valentine.

But the unseriousness of this budget does raise a broader question that continues to bug the hell out of me: exactly how smart are the Bushies? John DiIulio memorably described the White House senior political staff as "Mayberry Machiavellis." But with stunts like the Social Security privatization drive, and now this budget, are we seeing the work of the buffoonish Barney Fife or the devious Nicolo?

In a recent post on national security, Mark Schmitt warned Democrats not to fall into the delusion that they can beat Republicans with superior policy stances, because that's not how the White House plays the game. Big "policy battles," he suggested, will be won or lost on the basis of big, general themes.

I understand where Mark is coming from (though in a postscript, he had second thoughts and suggested that he might have succumbed to "nihilistic despair"), but I would add another warning: by the very nature of things, Democrats will never be able to out-dumb Republicans, because their message is inherently so simple, while ours is not, precisely because we actually want to accomplish things in the real world through public-sector activism, which is, well, complicated. By the same token, we'll never be able to out-bribe the Republicans by countering their tax cuts with our popular spending initiatives, because in the end, a politics based on personal, selfish calculation will always undermine the sense of community that is the foundation of progressivism.

If we can't out-dumb them or out-bribe them, our only real option is to out-smart them in a way that doesn't make us look like smart-asses, right? And that's also the principled way to deal with unserious and destructive Republican initiatives, whether they are craftily stupid or just plain stupid. That's the burden of being the "reality-based community."

UPDATE: I somehow missed writing the obvious coda to this post: the immortal Derek Smalls quote from Spinal Tap: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."
-- Posted at 6:33 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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