Sure, you can find scores of politicians who have recited the words “budgets are moral documents.” But a sound bite does not an argument make.
The prevailing tendency is to break up our conversations into particular economic problems (inflation and economic growth), “values” issues (which tend to be abortion, LGBTQ rights and racial justice), and spending programs (these days, the ones in the Build Back Better bill).
But how we deal with economic problems says a great deal about what we value. Start with those who would have the Federal Reserve immediately slam down on the economic brakes by raising interest rates.
What they won’t admit is that they place a much higher priority on taming inflation than in confronting the suffering that an almost certainly premature slowdown would impose on lower income workers just beginning to earn higher wages.
Similarly, those who blame inflation on the economic rescue package President Joe Biden and the Democrats pushed through in March choose to ignore how much that package did to improve the standard of living of so many Americans, especially the least advantaged.
A comparable logic apples to the debate over Build Back Better. It should be informed by a comparison of what Republicans chose to do when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, and what Democrats are trying to do now with their tenuous trifecta.
The GOP focused on two big things: Slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy and trying (fortunately, unsuccessfully) to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would have deprived some 20 million Americans of health insurance coverage. “Smaller government” (although not a smaller deficit) would be their way of describing their goals. A government friendlier to the best-off and harsher toward the least-privileged would be another.
By contrast, even a slimmed-down Build Back Better bill would expand health coverage by some 4 million additional Americans, and perhaps more, continue the expansions in the child tax credit that has already cut child poverty roughly in half, slash the costs of childcare for most families, and establish universal pre-K programs. How’s that for “family values”?
The bill also invests a record amount of money in battling climate change, and significant sums in housing affordability, workforce training and higher education.
It’s not surprising that Republicans want to talk about “big spending” and leave it at that. But if Democratic politicians are incapable of shifting the conversation to the terrain of values — care for children, upward mobility, shared economic growth, enhanced educational opportunities, health care for everyone — they should find another line of work.
Of course, whenever the issue of framing the political debate arises, we can’t ignore the role of the media. Political commentary is, by its nature, episodic, headline-driven, and subject to the distortions introduced by pre-conceptions.
I should note that I know what I’m talking about because I have committed all of these sins.
The current media environment complicates matters further, since right-wing outlets and mainstream sources of news are engaged in very different enterprises.
Conservative and far right outlets are single-mindedly opposed to Democrats and progressives and happy to pick up any stone to throw at Biden.
They have no qualms about declaring in the morning that inflation is the administration’s biggest failure and turning smartly in the afternoon to slowed employment growth. By evening, they’ll be bashing Democrats on Critical Race Theory, the schools, or COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media pride themselves on reporting “both sides” and challenging whoever is in power. Even Democratic-leaning commentators regularly express frustration with Biden for 1) not being progressive enough, or 2) being too progressive, or 3) not being tough enough on his Republican foes, or 4) not talking about the right issues, or 5) not getting out there enough, period.
It’s true that the mainstream media must do far more to confront the Republican Party’s challenge to the democratic system itself. Nevertheless, political actors — this means you, Democrats — have a responsibility to play the hand they’re dealt.
Yes, Biden and his party will be judged in large part by how well they deal with the overriding issues — the pandemic, prices, jobs. The media cannot avoid covering these matters relentlessly.
But they should also pay attention not just to whether problems are solved, but also to the values reflected in which problems politicians choose to confront and how they go about it. Republicans are skilled in moving arguments to the terrain of “values.” Democrats should not grant them a monopoly in this sphere.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.