The Critical Few

I describe budgets as a tapestry: When it’s woven together, the picture amounts to our hopes and dreams of a nation.”

—Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff and reportedly his choice to be Treasury secretary

If Jack Lew becomes the next Secretary of the Treasury, he will have to deal directly with a Republican Party that, by all appearances, seems ready to do nasty things to the country.

But I have some doubts as to whether there is unanimity among Republicans in Congress to threaten the fiscal health of the country with a protracted battle over the budget. And it would take near-unanimity to pull off the caper of ruining the economy.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but if one thinks about it, there are now 55 members of the Democratic Conference in the Senate and only five Republicans would have to join them to stop any history-making attempt to wreck the country. Are there five GOP senators who care more about today’s America than tomorrow’s Grover Norquist?

Geeze, I hope so.

In the House, Democrats hold 201 seats. Only a handful of Republicans (and there are 15 of them who were elected in a district also won by President Obama in November) would be needed to stop the insanity. Are there seventeen or so Republican House members politically sane enough to vote with Democrats should it come to that? God only knows. And God only knows if Speaker Boehner would even let such a vote happen.

But these numbers indicate to me that Democrats can stand strong and not compromise away a jot or tittle of the integrity of what Ed Schultz calls “the big three,” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

And besides hoping that there are a handful of Republicans who will refuse to become economic saboteurs, I am also hoping that Jack Lew—a veteran Democrat who first learned the ways of Washington under the sainted Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill—will be the kind of man that former Republican Senator and Budget Committee chairman Judd Gregg says he is:

He’s like a labor-union negotiator. He’s not going to give you an inch if he doesn’t have to. He’s a true believer in the causes. 

It may take a Democratic true believer to convince true-believing Republicans that he will let them, if they insist on fiscal chaos, go down the road to lasting infamy. And we can only hope that such a prospect will send chills down at least a critical few right-wing spines.



  1. ansonburlingame

     /  January 10, 2013


    I have tried, hard, to not be provactive on this blog for several months now and thus have withheld many comments. It is hopeless for me to try to sway your opinions on most political matters (or you to try to sway mine as well). But that does NOT mean that you (or I) have a lock on “truth”. Nor does it mean that Dems alone have such a “lock” or the GOP as well.

    This paticular blog is a good example of your efforts to “lock in the truth” with majority politics. The “tone” of this blog, to me at least, is “i onlyf maybe 15 Republicans” would join with ALL Dems then we could have a government wisely governing in all matters. I disagree, again.

    If politicians really voted “wisely” and based on their own independent and “heartfelt” analysis of given issues, well I would expect an ultimate majority vote on contentious issues to be a part Dem and part GOP majority vote. In today’s America it takes a 100% party line vote, at least on contentious issues, to “lead”. That, to me is a political failure in America today and one of the worst symptoms of such failure is the recent “Tea Party vote” on the fiscal cliff bill. I even “went public” condeming such a vote in the case of OBL (ole Billy Long).

    Here is yet another example. Remove the political power of the NRA and there would be little or no public debate over gun control in my view at least for assualt weapons, huge “clips” and ammunition designed ONLY to KILL human beings. Remove the “insane” religious views (which have not place in politics in my view, one way or the other) and abortion would remain an individual matter with no government support, one way or the other on such decisions. And I could make a list of entitlement issues that “thinking” people would reject as well when it is impossible to responsibly fund all of those issues.

    To me it is “too bad” that our political debate has become so polarized that it is useless for me to comment herein or you to do the same “over there” on my blog. But I still read your blog and the comments therein. I find now almost 100% agreement from your commentors, just as you will find the same on my own blog. That does NOT promote constructive political exchange of ideas. To me it promotes single party politics debate which is a travesty in a democracy.

    Finally, and again Henry I appologize for “writing too long”, to call a BUDGET a tapestry is WRONG, at least in my view. A State of the Union address or a politcal campaign can and usually is such a tapestry. But a BUDGET, one passed by a majority however such a majority is cobbled together, is a constitutional process to DO things and pay for them. If I constructed my own “budget” to fulfill all my hopes and dreams, financially, (a “tapestry”) well hello bankruptcy court in a year or so!!! In our case it will take longer as a country but the “end” will come someday if we keep marching down such a path of hopes and dreams and ignore financial realtity.



    • First, here’s what Jack Lew said:

      I describe budgets as a tapestry: When it’s woven together, the picture amounts to our hopes and dreams of a nation.

      What Lew is saying is that a budget reflects who we are as a people, that’s all. If, say, we spend most of our money on the military, that says one thing about us. If we spend most of our money on improving our infrastructure, funding basic research, educating our kids, and ensuring that there is a safety net for our poor, sick, and elderly, that says another. Budgets indicate priorities.

      Your own personal budget reflects your priorities, too. If you were a meth addict, you would allocate part of your fiances to your drug habit. If you were a gun fanatic, likewise. If you liked gardening, you would find a way to plant in the spring. Whatever it is that you and your wife value, as long as it is within your means, you will have.

      With the budget of the country, as President Obama has said often, we have to figure out a way to live within our means, as we decide what we want. Now, that doesn’t mean we stop deficit spending tomorrow, as I have said many times. And it doesn’t mean that we never have budget deficits. But it does mean that we prioritize things; it does mean that we figure out what we want as a nation and then find the revenues to pay for those things; it does mean, ultimately, that as a country we have to ask the people who have the money to pay for the things we say, by our votes, that we want.

      Take the Afghanistan war. Should we continue it? If so, ask people to pay for it. If not, get out. That is prioritizing, Anson. That’s all I, as a liberal, ask. Let’s figure out–and we basically know what the majority of Americans find necessary in the budget–what it is we want as a nation and gather the resources to pay for it. We have plenty of resources for most of the things we say we want. (That might not set well with you, but it is true.)

      What we have is a minority in the country, and there is, unfortunately, a majority in the House of Representatives who represent that minority, who don’t want to fully fund, say, Medicaid (check in on the Missouri legislature on the fight over the Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare, which doesn’t cost the state much at all), and that minority refuses to assent to the majority’s will. Polls show that people do not want to balance the budget on the backs of the old, the sick, and the poor, but Republicans continue to want to do so.

      I ask you this: If one party in the legislature refuses to acknowledge reality; if that party is willing to risk the full faith and credit of the U.S. government; if that party is willing to wreck the economy to get what they want; why shouldn’t I, a Democrat, try to find at least a handful of folks from that party who acknowledges reality and refuses to wreck the fiances of the country?

      Oddly, by your stance in this comment, you are encouraging the very polarization you say you don’t like. I’m trying to get a small group of Republicans to come to their senses on what a majority of Americans can clearly see. You say I am trying to “lock in the truth.” No, I’m trying to figure out a way for governance to take place. Governance. Teapartiers don’t want to govern; they want to disrupt, to sabotage. And I am not going to appease them. I’m not going to try to find a way to compromise with people who don’t want to compromise, but want everything their way. I’m trying to figure out a way to get around their destructive goals.

      I appreciated your piece criticizing Billy Long. But in that piece you were saying that Long was playing local politics with his vote. You were saying that he should have risen above local politics and done the right thing. How is that any different from what I am saying? I say: Do the right thing for the country. Don’t ruin our economic recovery. Don’t play games with the budget. Republicans don’t control the government. Democrats don’t control the entire government. But the Dems, for the moment, have control of most of it. They won the White House. They won the Senate. They got more votes in House elections. Gerrymandering helped keep them from taking over the House.

      And I would think that you, above all, would urge Republicans to, at least when it comes to ruining the economy, reflect that electoral reality. Why don’t you do that?



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  January 11, 2013

    You ended with a question and thus I respond.

    I doubt that you spend anytime reading my blog since our “explosions” with one another, particularly over the censorship issue, upon which, again, we will never agree and I don’t attempt to reignite that old debate.

    But I DO challenge the GOP sometimes, often on some particular subjects like abortion and gun control. I have written for several years that revenues must go up and spending come down as well. I also vote as I write in many cases and never have nor will vote for OBL, Todd Akin, Rick Santorum, etc. In doing so I actually vote Democratic, holding my nose when doing so in some cases.

    Sometimes I even stray from politics to a degree such as the recently posted “Astrophysics and Theology”. I suspect you would agree with some of which I opinioned therein, but so what. Contrary to Rawhide’s opinion, I do not write to cater to you or anyone else. I write to express my views, take them or leave them and in doing so hope to have some meager influence on “someone”.

    I appreciate you response to my comment above, by the way. But even therein you restate where we disagree, strongly is some cases. I don’t call for an IMMEDIATE balanced budget, and for sure am willing to seek other ways to force Congress to live within our means.

    Using the debt ceiling debate to attempt to do that is also dead wrong. I recently wrote a blog saying exactly that as well. In the same blog I suggested that the BUDGET process is the correct and constituional place to hold such debates and in the end compromise must be achieved, year in and year out to create a budget to pay for the things demanded by Americans. For sure that budget process has been an abject failure for now coming up on four years, for sure. But I also say, in so many words that using a budget as a tapestry (hopes and dreams) has only resulted in a travesty (dangerous debt), politically and financially, for now four years.

    I even agree that Obama tried in Aug 2011 to reach some form of a “grand compromise”. He did what I have suggested for several years and tried to regain control of the deficit, but not immediately zero it, and lost that battle. Did he “renege” in those negotiations or did the GOP hold firm to zero tax increases, or was it a combination of both. Woodward suggests both sides are to blame, ignominiously, and I agree with that book by and large. If you read it I suspect you disagree with Woodwards explanation of events that transpired as well.

    For sure I am never always right in what I write or the views that I hold. But I hold firm to the statement on my blog that I TRY to find solutions to vexing problems. If my attempts to balance Medicare as we know it became a public initiative with “clout” behind it, well it would go down in flames in the House for sure and probably even the Senate. You know based on my comments that balancing Medicare needs, by and large, to be done on the backs of the rich, those people that can get good healthcare without government resources, at least up to a point.

    EMTALA is an expensive travesty. EOL care is a huge problem as well. But we have proven time and again that we cannot, politically, resovle those problems with entrenched positions on both sides. And to leave those problems unresolved and then leap to universal HC, well you have read my views on that approach and polemically disdained many of them over the years as well.

    Afghanistan you mention. I called for a unilateral withdrawal, including an admition of defeat, militarily, well over a year ago. I also wrote about 4 years ago that I thought the Obama decisions related to Afghanistan were bad decisions, even then. The McChrystal fiasco was a direct result of such bad decisions by the Commander in Chief, in my view, but on that we also disagee.

    Go to war and fight to win. If that cannot be done, fight to win, then don’t go to war or get out of it quickly when such becomes political OR military reality. We learned that lesson in Vietnam and yet still make the same grave mistakes, politically with the only exception being the Gulf War and the legitimate use of the Powell Doctrine. On that point I still prefer the older Weinberger Doctrine but so what. No one today even knows the nuances that seperate the two doctrines.

    But wrapping all of this up, you and I, your commenters and mine, are so entrenched in our positions that a good exchange of political ideas with the goal of seeking compromise, not dominance for with side, is simply not possible on these blogs. Well so what as both of our blogs are but farts in a tornado. But the underlying inability for us to seek and reach compromise is syptomatic of the larger country.

    Thus I continue to think about and write about “cliffs”, more out of a sense of hopelessness of our current (at least 12 years current) American political process. We are headed for disaster if we cannot find compromise and expect single party politics to win the day, months and years to come.

    You write as if demographics and single party dominance will ultimately win the day, or so it seems to me.

    Sorry “Henry” but doubt you will even bother to read the above.



    • Anson,

      1. I don’t agree EMTALA is “an expensive travesty,” unless you mean by that statement that instead of EMTALA we should have had a universal health care insurance system that covered everybody. That, of course, would have made EMTALA unnecessary. Absent such a system, guaranteeing people that they can get treated for emergencies is the least we could do. And I do mean “least.”

      2.  I don’t see why we have to withdraw from Afghanistan with an admission of defeat. We can just as reasonably argue that we are withdrawing because we have accomplished most of our goals: taking the government from the Taliban and killing bin Laden. The other stuff, that counter-insurgency stuff (which I think Obama sort of got locked into by both his campaign language and the generals’ playing off that language) was doomed and nobody would much blame us for that and might give us credit for trying. Defeat though? Nah. I think that is too strong a term.

      3. Yes, I know you do not necessarily toe the party line on deficits and debt. Neither do I. I did not like the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for anyone, a position that not many in my party would embrace. I wanted to keep open the idea that some of the rates for middle class folks could be gradually increased after things got a lot better. But that is history now. The only new revenue we will get is from so-called tax reform. And Republicans don’t seem in the mood to do that now either.

      4. I’ll grant that you spend more time personally trying to “find solutions to vexing problems” than I do. I mostly leave that up to the policy wonks who get paid to crunch the numbers and think about such things. I realize that any original musings I might have on those things wouldn’t amount to much. I rather look at the proposals out there, analyze them as best I can in light of what I think is best for the country, and then try to figure out whether the politics of achieving them is possible. That’s what I think I do best, rather than inventing budgets from scratch. But I do admire your tenacity.

      And by the way, I think you misunderstand the purpose of blogs, Anson. They don’t necessarily exist to achieve a “goal of seeking compromise.” This one, at least, exists to counter conservative opinion, which I used to believe and now which I don’t. None of us are in a position to compromise anyway. That’s for those in power.  What we can do is advance and defend a point of view, strongly if you like, from which a compromise can be forged. But first there has to be a position from which to compromise. I defend those positions I think best for the country on this blog and criticize those I think bad for the country.

      5. On the demographics thing, I have said for almost four years now that the GOP has to change in light of a changing country. That argument didn’t look very good in 2010, but I stuck with it. I want the party to change because in its present form it is destructive to the interests of the country. Eventually, one way or the other, it will bend to reality, just as I wrote so long ago.

      6. Finally, you wrote,

      For sure I am never always right in what I write or the views that I hold.

      For sure. You are “never always right.” Nor am I. Nor is anyone. I assume that simple truth is understood by anyone bothering to read this blog, but I think there are some who read your blog who do think they are always right. At least that’s what some of their nasty comments say to me. But I don’t really have a problem with someone thinking they are right, as long as they are willing to be persuaded by the evidence that they might be wrong. That’s the attitude I try to take everyday I sit behind this keyboard.



  3. Bob Samuels

     /  January 12, 2013

    Jack Lew does not represent the type of country we want to live in. Lew favors European style austerity which as we all know ain’t workin so great. Lew was the head of the alternative investments unit at Citigroup, profiting from the the deregulation which he helped to enact under the Clinton administration. He received a bonus from our bailout money while the economy was in free fall. Lew is a disgraceful, indefensible choice, although not at all a surprising choice. If interested, give this a quick read:


    • Bob,

      First of all, I love The Nation.

      I saw Bernie Sanders, a man for whom I have the highest respect, say basically what he the told WaPo:

      In my view, we need a Treasury secretary who is prepared to stand up to corporate America and their powerful lobbyists and fight for policies that protect the working families in our country. I do not believe Mr. Lew is that person.

      I don’t believe he is necessarily that person, either. But Bernie Sanders is not the President. Bernie Sanders, as much as I admire him and would vote for him enthusiastically, couldn’t get elected president. Barack Obama did get elected. Twice. And if he is comfortable with Lew as the point man on the budget, then our problem, to the extent we don’t like some of Lew’s Wall Street background, is really with Barack Obama.

      At some point, we have to (even if grudgingly) trust the man we voted for to do the right thing for the country, at least as far as he sees what is the right thing (with full knowledge of what the other guy we didn’t vote for would have done). Obama is not and never has been and never will be a liberal in the sense that I, and Bernie Sanders, are liberals. Some folks on the left just can’t abide that reality.

      Having said that, I don’t have a problem with anyone on the left criticizing this president for anything. I think it’s rather healthy, in fact. If you read John Nichols, a good lefty journalist that I see on TV a lot, you will find legitimate questions that Lew should have to answer. And some of his answers will not satisfy me or John Nichols. And you know what? Even so, I still think Obama should have the man he wants. He’s the one who ran and he’s Lew’s who he is comfortable with.

      My point in this piece is that I hope Lew is the kind of man who will have the guts to let the GOP hang itself on the economy, rather than give in and make a bad deal. And, by the way, Lew will only go as far as Obama will let him. And if Obama allows Republicans run over him again on the debt ceiling, or roll him on the Big Three, then we will have Obama to blame, not Jack Lew.



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  January 13, 2013


    You say, “European style austerity which as we all know ain’t workin so great” and I agree. The question however is WHY is “it” is not working?

    The “laws” (science if I may use the term) of economics would stipulate that continuing accumulation of unpayable debt will ultimately bring down any economic system. Many will suggest that “austerity” the refusal to accumulate more and more unpayable debt is the “solution”.

    However when economic reality raises its ugly head, it runs right into the face of social reality, the demands to meet the “needs” for more and more people. By and large and in the extreme, austerity results in people (Spain and Greece for now) taking to the streets in their demands for more and more, when economically it is clear (to some) that the money to pay for more is drying up, fast (in Spain and Greece) or more slowly but still drying up in other places.

    I would point out that when economic reality and social reality meet head to head that historically, economics ultimately wins that confrontation, like it or not.

    I am all for “meeting needs” in America. But I get “ripped” by liberals when I say just pay to achieve that worthy goal. As well, I have offered the “simple” solution for America’s economic turmoil today. Want to pay for “more needs” (or the ones already on the plate), then MAKE more goods and services in Ameica that will SELL right here in America and around the world. Sell “stuff” and economic growth occurs.

    But America is finding it very hard to sell many things today, in America and around the world. And you know why that is the case, do you not, our inablility to sell “stuff”? Try “price” as the determining factor for now. For economics (supply and demand) to work, suppliers must meet price demands from buyers. We are losing that battle every day in a “global world”, today. Blame it on low paid workers or corruption around the world all you like, but that won’t change economic reality and we can’t build regulatory walls high enough to keep that reality at bay.

    Economics, fundamentally, is NOT moral for sure. But it is REAL. Want a classic example of how regulation to achieve morality failed in the face of DEMAND (some will say amoral demand)? Try prohibition, as only an example. That was a failed attempt through legal controls by govenment which Democrats today call for, legal controls to force “buy American” despite the price of such things. Well “made in Scotland” booze made a fortune in America during prohibition as I recall and so did a bunch of criminals in America.



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