No one here but us chickens . . .

Today really, truly, will be budget day here at Asymmetrical Information, the last one having been derailed by a five hour doctor's visit.  One thing that struck home last night, as I was sitting on a dinner panel about the next four years, is that their huge majority, combined with budget constraints, actually poses one big problem for the Democrats:  no one to torpedo their electoral promises for them.

The Democrats right now are divided into deficit hawks, who think that the nearly $1 trillion deficit headed down the pike means they can't afford any big programs, and the big spenders, who say to hell with the deficit, let's spend as much as we can to make it look like we're really doing something.  More on this later.  But one wrinkle that hadn't seemed as important as it now does is that the Democrats do not have the luxury of proposing unpassable legislation in order to look like they're doing something.  They can't make good on Obama's electoral promises about global warming by putting up a program the Republicans hate enough to take down, because there aren't enough Republicans to credibly blame for the bill's destruction.  So they either have to actually pass a carbon bill that will be massively unpopular when it raises energy prices, or explain why Obama didn't really mean it.

That almost certainly means, at least according to the crack political team on the panel with me, that we will not get any sort of cap and trade--an outcome that probably could have been predicted when gas hit $4.  But it makes even potentially popular things like Obama's health care plan and middle class tax cuts problematic.  The middle class tax cuts are, as far as I can tell, already stillborn; in today's revenue environment, even reversing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy probably wouldn't pay for them.   But once the electorate finds out that the Democrats will not be handing out free money, not because the Republicans stopped them, but because they stopped themselves, they're going to find themselves mired in a very difficult discussion.  Interest rates, sovereign debt problems, and the debt substitution effect do not make good sound bytes.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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