The Debt Ceiling Debate: Social Democracy v. Limited Government?

Charles Krauthammer claims we are in the midst of a great debate. I am not so sure.

Writing at NRO, Charles Krauthammer casts the current debate is rather grand terms (The Debt-Ceiling Divide):

We’re in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties — social-democratic versus limited-government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, health-care reform, financial regulation, deficit spending. Everything. The debt ceiling is but the latest focus of this fundamental divide.

This sounds quite grandiose, and while I think that there is a kernel of truth in the above paragraph, I think it well over-states (and indeed even distorts) the actual debate being had.

The kernel of truth is this:  there is a debate in the US over the exact role of social welfare policy in the US (i.e., old age pensions and health care specifically).  However, the debate is not about whether to have these things or not, as public opinion is quite clear on the following point:  the vast majority of the population overwhelmingly support Social Security and Medicare.  The issue is not whether we should have these things, but rather a) the exact form that they will take and, b) how to pay for them (Medicare in particular).

Further, it is unclear to me how Krauthammer’s list is representative of some massive conflict between two distinct visions of US politics.

1) The stimulus. There are various ways that one could (and that I would) criticize the stimulus.  However, was it a philosophical fork in the road between two visions of government?  No, as there would have been a stimulus under a McCain administration as well (just as there were fiscal policies aimed at propping up the economy under Bush).  It might not have looked the same, but there would have been one.  The Great Recession was such that any administration would have entered into a stimulus plan.

2)  The auto bailouts. See point #1.  Not to mention the fact that the auto bailouts started under Bush.

3)  Health-care reform. The PPACA is the one policy that was not going to pass in any form under McCain.  However, as I have pointed out ad nauseam, the basic structure of the PPACA is one that was once considered a “conservative” approach to universal health-care (see:  Romney’s plan in Mass. and the fact that the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s supported such a plan, amongst other examples).  Now, this doesn’t mean that the PPACA was a good idea or that conservatives should embrace it.  However, it is hardly the stuff of a massive shift toward social democracy as it basically institutionalizes the existing system of private insurance companies and employer-provided coverage.

4)  Financial regulation. This is one of those things one can criticize and state was done improperly, but the basic notion of financial reform is hardly new nor it is the exclusive domain of “social democracy.”  Further, after the financial crisis in 2008 did anyone think that there would be no new financial regs?  How is this part of some grandiose social democracy v. limited government debate?

5)  Deficit spending. This one stuns me.  How does deficit spending, which is the clear norm, equate to an indication of deficit spending v. limited government?  As that noted social Democrat, Dick Cheney once said “deficits don’t matter.”

Here’s the real problem with Krauthammer’s position:  the current debt ceiling debate isn’t about a massive vision of fiscal policy nor is it about the scope of government.   The only hint of a discussion of reform to the welfare state was in Obama’s “Grand Bargain” approach.  Otherwise, the spending cut debate has been, as it always seems to be, about discretionary spending cuts.  See Keith Hennessey’s Quick summary of the Boehner bill and tell me that this is about some grandiose debate between social democracy and limited government.  What one will find is a list of discretionary spending cuts.   That is not the stuff of a grand theoretical debate between alternative visions of the US government.

Quite frankly, the current debate has hardly struck me as some grand policy debate or some philosophical showdown.   Do some actors see it that way?  Very possibly, but I need more than “we have a spending problem” or “we just need to stop out of control spending” to be convinced that proponents of massive cuts have a complex worldview that needs to be considered as part of a grand debate.  Quite honestly, the debate appears to be about taxes and not about the actual complexities of governance and what to do about things like old age pensions and health care.

And, of course, the main problem at the end of the day is health care costs going forward.  And we are hardly dealing with that problem.

I had some other things to say about Krauthammer’s column, but this post has already gotten pretty long.  He makes some salient points about the politics of the moment, but I reject his grandiose framing of the problem.

Again:  if this was a major philosophical conflict we wouldn’t be arguing over nibbling at discretionary spending and, further, the Tea Party faction would be able to offer more than just “we spend too much” and “there is no problem with not raising the debt ceiling.”

One last point:  do I think that the debate that Krauthammer details exists in some segments of the population?  Yes, I do.  But while one may have a grand theory about US government, the fact of the matter is that our politicians are not having that debate at the moment (nor are they likely to).  And, moreover, even if you think we need to dismantle the welfare state or you think that we need a single payer health care system immediately, that is not the debate we are having in the Congress.

Put as simply as possible:  does the Boehner plan represent the “limited government” side and does the Reid plan represent the “social democracy side”?  No, they do not.  Both largely support the status quo design of US government policies going forward, and seek to find savings largely via discretionary spending cuts.  Hardly a grand conflict over philosophy.

*In other words:  I cannot take seriously as a grand philosophical position simplistic assertions or denials of reality.

FILED UNDER: Deficit and Debt, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. hey norm says:

    Krauthammer has to invoke the big socialism lie to even make his weak point. Obama is a moderate. Almost conservative. The stimulus was full of ineffective tax cuts. He killed OBL when Bush and Cheney couldn’t. He has carried on many of that administrations terrorism policies. Health Care was a republican program and approach. And now in the debt ceiling debacle he was leaned much further right than left.
    Krauthammer should just sit and pontificate on Fox News, where the faithful want to hear the crap he spews forth.

  2. john personna says:

    No, it’s vastly simpler.

    The question is whether we choose record-low taxes, record high defense spending, and somehow slash “social” programs to make that work.

    That it may not be numerically possible is currently a “technicality.”

  3. Liberty60 says:

    Krauthammer is sermonizing to the base what they have been fed all these years, that there is some grand First-Principle debate.

    As you point out, the debate we are having is between Moderate Republican Wonk Budget A versus Moderate Republican Wonk Budget B.

    But the base has become fired up and energized with the lies they have been fed about the Islamo-Marxist usurper.

    If you read the comments section at nearly any rightwing blog (RedState, Ace, Gateway, etc) you will see a base of believers for whom the very existance of Social Security/ Medicare, even public schools is highly debatable.

    The fact that this base is wildly out of step with what most Americans believe is not often pointed out.

  4. george says:

    How do you have large military and limited gov’t? Are they considering having a private army (ie a non-gov’t army)?

    Same thing with the opposition to gay marriage, the war on drugs, the Patriot Act – all of those are the anti-thesis of limited gov’t.

    Basically, like the Democrats they want large gov’t, they’re just differing about what parts should be large. And at least the Democrats are honest about it, and are willing to raise taxes to pay for it. Having a large gov’t without the taxes to sustain it (whether military, medicare, social services) is the anti-thesis of fiscal conservatism.

    Right now its pretty hard to take the GOP seriously.

  5. Bill Sharp says:

    Steven, couldmn’t agree or disagree with you more. Of course the debt ceiling show going on in D.C. is not, in itself, a prime example of a grand policy divide between limited government and a welfare state. There is little difference between the two bills, potential House and Senate. Just the children in Congress having fun and justifying to enough citizens they are doing real work. On the other hand, Charles is writing about the bigger picture, the fight between those of us, I include myself, who believe in rational limited federal government, and Obama’s broad vision for America’s future. Hard at times to define that vision because the Prresident is short when it comes to details about anything, but for sure, since he said it, he wants to fundimentally change the nation. Regarding the present childrens feud, the country does not have to default. I’ve gone into this in my blog, but there will be enough tax revenue stolen from citizens to cover the debt service, social security payments, Defense department, additional essentials, and still have some left over for other expenses. President Obama can decide where the remaining revenue will go. He’s indicated he can give up some of his pay. A good start. Eliminating the FCC, Departmetns of Energy, Education, come to mind.

  6. Guthrum says:

    The American working people do not care which party it is, they just want to be able to keep more of their hard earned money instead of the governments (Fed, state, local) taking more.
    They are tired of the government taking money and giving it away:
    to the military for more “toys”: the B52, B1, B2 are plenty to take care of any tin horn dictator, they don’t need another bomber. No wars in crazy countries.
    The army can go to Staples and Home Depot for supplies instead of paying $300 for a hammer.
    Money for silly, useless grants: study on why children fall off of tricycles for ex.
    Foreign aid
    Welfare: food stamps, subsidized housing, free lunch, etc.
    Aid to illegal immigrants
    Agencies that overregulate and cost taxpayers/businesses money (EPA, Dept. of Ed.)
    Tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations that middle class people don’t get
    If people want to contribute to the above, that is fine with me; they can even write it off as charity. Working people should not have their hard earned money taken.
    This is what the whole deal is about.

  7. ratufa says:

    @Bill Sharp:

    but there will be enough tax revenue stolen from citizens to cover the debt service, social security payments, Defense department, additional essentials, and still have some left over for other expenses.

    Does that include Medicare and Medicaid under “additional essentials”? If so, I don’t see how you fully cover all those things without raising the debt ceiling, based on these numbers:

    http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/federal_budget

    and there are various other services, such as funding the Federal prison system, FBI, border patrol, judicial system, etc, whose funding shouldn’t be suddenly eliminated.

  8. Dave Ely says:

    The whole point of the current “Crisis” is for extremists in the republican party to get what they want without having to have the debate that they know they can’t win. They are trying to force policies that are completely inconsistent with what a solid majority of Americans want, and to be able to defend themselves from any electoral backlash by saying that Obama and the democrats voted for it as well. Think something like Ryan’s Medicare plan.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    On the other hand, Charles is writing about the bigger picture, the fight between those of us, I include myself, who believe in rational limited federal government, and Obama’s broad vision for America’s future.

    Oh really? I would ask what is this supposed broad vision that the President has for America’s future that you are so opposed to, but then you write…

    Hard at times to define that vision because the Prresident is short when it comes to details about anything, but for sure, since he said it, he wants to fundimentally change the nation.

    So you are opposed to something that you have no idea about other than a few platitudes spoken by the President? And you write about the children in Congress? Hmm…seems to me that a real adult would be able to state the specific reasons why he is opposed to something and/or someone…but you further give yourself away when you write about tax revenue being “stolen”…

  10. An Interested Party says:

    The whole point of the current “Crisis” is for extremists in the republican party to get what they want without having to have the debate that they know they can’t win.

    Exactly right…if there is anything to Krauthammer’s argument, it is the fact that his side consistently loses the debate and now has to resort to extortion to even try to begin the process of getting what they want…

  11. Anonne says:

    The permanent Democratic majority is already here, we just don’t know it. Take away Social Security and Medicare, and watch what happens.

    I agree that we aren’t really having a discussion about the size and scope of government. People blindly demonize the term “spending” without really knowing what that means, and none of them have any ideas about balancing the budget. Other than the Republican wet dream of getting rid of the Dept. of Education and a few other agencies, there is nothing that shows a willingness to truly get a handle on our finances. The cuts most people propose are a joke.

    I think the populace as a whole doesn’t appreciate the cost of what it takes to run the government and we are disconnected from it since we often don’t feel the benefits directly until we reach old age.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    I think the populace as a whole doesn’t appreciate the cost of what it takes to run the government…

    Not to take away blame from the populace, but it is hardly surprising that many people don’t appreciate this cost when we’ve had, for decades, the Republican idea of borrow and spend and not enough Democrats (for fear of being demonized by Republicans) advocating that we need to have taxation at an amount to cover all of our expenses…

  13. Anonne says:

    True. The true cost has been distorted since we haven’t really been aware of how much we have been borrowing. How did the Republicans get a reputation for fiscal responsibility? The control over the narrative in our so-called liberal media is corrosive.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    The control over the narrative in our so-called liberal media is corrosive.

    Well, of course the media isn’t as liberal as most conservatives would like to believe…meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan, echoing some of Steven’s points, takes apart Krauthammer’s ridiculous argument even more…

    [The President’s] record in office has been remarkably moderate.

    From a stimulus loaded with tax cuts to an accession to leaving the Bush tax cuts in place in 2010, from winning the war on al Qaeda that Bush and Cheney were losing to managing the bank and auto company bailouts without losing vast amounts of public money, Obama is a moderate Republican. His health insurance plan is identical to one from the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, and to the right of Nixon and Clinton; his attempt at financial deregulation was modest and has been torn apart by lobbyists since….

    The vast bulk of the debt was inherited by Obama and created by the GOP under Bush and both parties before then; much of the rest is a function of a stimulus that prevented total collapse and the revenue implosion caused by the Great Recession. To pin the current unemployment rate and accumulated debt to Obama alone is so false, so misleading, so gratuitously disingenuous it belongs on Fox.

  15. Barry says:

    One comment – Krauthammer is full of sh*t. The only question in anything he writes is whether he’s lying or just BS-ing. And for the *start* of showing this, look at his Iraq War writings.

    He’s a propagandist, not a scholar.

  16. Raoul says:

    Are the people who write about Americans keeping their hard earned money the same that say that almost half of Americans pay no taxes?

  17. @Raoul: Indeed, yes. There are some serious contradictions in the rhetoric on taxation.