The Tea Party Is Winning—the Liberal Agenda Is Being Suffocated

Progressives are gleeful: They took Larry Summers down, and now the GOP is self-destructing over defunding Obamacare. But they're missing the big picture.
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Liberals are in a gloating mood. They say Republicans, who are engaged in a civil war with each other while campaigning to defund Obamacare, are ignoring the wishes of the majority of Americans. Above all, liberals contend that if the GOP continues on its present course, it will once again shoulder the blame for shutting down the government, or worse — pushing it into default. Yet these liberals seem to pay little mind to the fact that history rarely repeats itself and that, this time, the blame may very well be spread more widely; Obama’s approval rating is already declining.

After years of frustration with Obama, progressives feel they finally won a round by blocking the nomination of Larry Summers as the next chair of the Federal Reserve earlier this month. They are convinced the president will resolutely protect the core of his legislative legacy, the Affordable Care Act, in budget negotiations — although no one has made money yet by betting that this president will hold on firmly to anything. (Significantly, Obama can compromise without giving up on the ACA. “All” he needs to do is to delay the law’s implementation in exchange for a three-month extension of government funding. By Christmas, the GOP will be back for more concessions.)

The pickle liberals are in can be best explained by the old tale about a man who went to his rabbi, complaining that his house was crowded to the point where life was impossible. The rabbi told him to bring a goat into the house. The man protested: He had asked to ease the crowding, not exacerbate it. But the rabbi insisted. Three weeks later, the man returned. “I cannot take it anymore,” he said. The rabbi replied, “Take out the goat.” The man came back soon after to thank the rabbi: “Life is good now.”

The left now celebrates the departure of Summers, whose support for the very deregulation that caused the crisis should have ruled him out of being considered in the first place. Liberals also overlook how the GOP’s looming provocation of a double crisis over the budget, witting or otherwise, will make us sigh with great relief if the nation is spared a shutdown and default which should never have been threatened in the first place. Meanwhile, these goats are sucking oxygen out of the crowded room that is needed to deal with all the issues the left actually cares about: gun control, job creation, education reform, infrastructure investment — all high on the president’s modest second-term agenda.

Meanwhile, budget negotiations are likely to result in the sequester being extended. Though the automatic cuts are often criticized for mindlessly curtailing all government programs in the same measure — the good, the doubtful, and those that actually ought to be trimmed — the fact that the military budget remains very high despite the cuts, and that social programs like Head Start that have already been slashed to the bone will be cut even further, deserves greater attention.

In short, you can take out a whole herd of goats and still be left with a room crowded with a host of grounded items from the liberal agenda. Even if the triple crisis of shutdown, default, and sequester is averted, we would simply be returning to the bleak pre-goat days, or what in fancier lingo is called status quo ante: no progress on any major legislative liberal item. And we would still have an anemic job recovery; tax cuts for the rich — and impoverished social programs for the poor; and a very far-from-perfect Obamacare.

Bringing health insurance to 30 million Americans is worth celebrating, even as an estimated 26 million will remain uncovered. We should remember, however, that the program is based on an idea introduced by the Heritage Foundation and intended to take the wind out of the sails of the liberal single-payer approach to health care.

As long as liberals keep their sights so low that overcoming manufactured crises and protecting one limited program are viewed as good omens, we will all continue to overlook how miserable our conditions really are. Understanding the depth of the liberal failure is the first step we must take before tackling the far more challenging question: Where do we go from here? 

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Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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