December 27, 2004

Fiscal Conservatives?

I'm greatly enjoying this American Prospect article by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, arguing that despite Bush's victory, the emerging Democratic majority is still, uh, emerging. But one paragraph in particular, on the "centrism" of internet lefties, struck me as a bit fanciful:
Some Republican and hawkish Democratic commentators have branded [groups like MoveOn, etc.] part of the left. New Republic Editor Peter Beinart even compared them to the communist-infiltrated left of the late 1940s that backed Henry Wallace for president. But the outlook of these new, primarily upscale and highly educated activists is Clintonite and center-left rather than left wing. … [L]ike many college-educated liberals, they are also fiscal conservatives. When MoveOn held a poll in January 2004 on what ad the organization should run on the week of Bush’s State of the Union address, its members chose one attacking the Bush administration’s budget deficits.
In this day and age, with yawning budget deficits and a looming current account crisis, sure, anyone with half a brain is a "fiscal conservative," in the sense that they think the insanity must end. But that's a rather narrow definition of fiscal conservative.

Now these definitions are, obviously, always relative to the situation—in another life, with a more liberal Congress at his disposal, Clinton would not have embraced balanced budgets and tight spending restraints. So these labels don't mean much. I suppose we could ask everyone in MoveOn what share of GDP the federal government should take up, and I suspect many of them would position themselves somewhere between the European model (40-60 percent) and the current American model (~18 percent). But again, fiscal conservatism usually manifests itself in individual tradeoffs—"Do you want this program? This program?"—rather than a grand unified vision of how big government should be.

What were left with, I think, is a matter of attitude. Do these new wave of liberals instinctively think that more spending is always the answer, or do they believe that there's merit in keeping tax rates low and investment strong? Or, if the choice comes up, do they believe that balanced budgets provide more economic "oomph" than low marginal tax rates? Right now, opposition to the Bush deficits are a good way to build credibility on attitude (they fooled even Judis and Teixeira!). But a more substantial position on fiscal matters probably won't emerge until the Democrats hoist themselves back in power.
-- Brad Plumer 3:01 AM || ||