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Thursday, 07 February 2013 07:41

Controlling the Agenda: Substance or Process?

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STEVEN JONAS MD, MPH FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

There is an old saw of politics: “He [or she] who controls the agenda wins the election, or the political battle, or the legislative contest, or what have you” (1).  And so, when during the Iraq War Cheney/Bush wanted to raise the hundreds of billions of dollars they needed to prosecute a war that Bush had already declared over, without raising taxes or making expenditure cuts elsewhere, the agenda became, not something like “an unfunded war, again --- why?” but “Support the Troops,” over and over again, from Fox”News” on up (or down, depending upon your perspective).  If anyone, Democrat or Republican (and back in those days there was an occasional Republican like Chuck Hagel who questioned the War --- what already [as WFAN’s Steve Summers would say] you didn’t know why they are going after him with such a vengeance?), they were immediately accused of “not supporting the troops,” or worse, and that was that.  No opponent, either of the war or of paying for it by borrowing money from China ever able to get the agenda on any substantive theme (2).

Of course the Republicans were interested in keeping the focus on “Support the Troops,” a matter of process, not substance, for several reasons.  They obviously didn’t want to raise the tax rates when one of their signature achievements was the “Bush Tax Cuts.”  They never have a problem when deficits and the debt are being increased to pay for a war (or military spending in general --- see Romney’s campaign platform), especially Cheney/Bush’s Iraq War.  In fact, it has been a Republican tradition going back decades to increase the budget deficit and the national debt on their watch, on programs like pursuing wars, hot or cold, that they like.  This is so that when inevitably the Democrats get back into office, they will be hamstrung fiscally and will not be able to enact programs that they like in the realm of national domestic spending, like infra-structure construction/re-construction, expanding educational opportunity, and alternative energy supplies development

As is well-known, leading into 2009 the GOP did this in spades, with the unfunded wars, the unfunded expansion of the Medicare pharmaceuticals program, and of course the Bush tax cuts.  The genius of Republican policy and especially politics since 2009 has been first their ability to keep the agenda focused on, not national programmatic needs, but the “debt and the deficit.”  For the most part, during his first term President Obama went along with this formulation.  And so has the GOP been able to use the process agenda of “getting spending under control,” “ending deficit spending,” “reducing the national debt” as the focus of all political discussion and controversy.  This of course has been combined with “no tax increases” (on which they caved a little bit in resolving the so-called “fiscal cliff” crisis [3]). And then there is the other process mantra: “shrink government” (without specifying how and all the time screaming ever-more loudly about expanding government, into your bed and now even into women’s vaginas.  Actually what they are after most is shrinking government regulation, of everything except the former two, but that’s another story).

Not that they have ever offered any specifics on exactly how they would either “shrink government” or “get spending under control.”  And they still are not.  Just the other day, one of their supposed “rational” spokesmen, Jonathan Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, appearing on “Morning Joe,” after allowing that Republicans need to be “more reasonable,” and mentioning “immigration reform,” on the agenda of some Republicans not for reasons of principle but only reasons of politics, when asked for specific cuts refused to mention even one (except “entitlements, of course, again without any specifics).  They have been riding the process approach to political agenda setting since Reagan came to office on the “government is the problem” agenda, without specification.

So, imagine their horror when in his Inaugural Address the President actually addressed specific, substantive agenda items, for example: climate change (gulp!), infra-structure construction/re-construction; alternative energy development; protecting the (pitifully weak) “safety net;” immigration reform, gun-control laws; banking reform; further health care system reform; and meaningful tax code changes.  A debate over the specifics of government functions is something the GOP simply cannot afford to have, because then they would to take actual positions on a variety of matters.  And since publicizing GOP positions on the whole of the list above would make them profoundly unpopular with many sectors of the electorate, that is something they want to avoid like the plague.  And here is Obama, ohmygosh, going all specific, going all substantive, on them.  How unfair, how devilish in fact.  

And so they do two things.  One is the epithets, you know “liberal,” “socialist,” big-government,” “big spender.”  The purpose here is to get the debate away from the specifics and onto the “yes he is, no he isn’t” contretemps.  The other is to get it back to the process side, on “debt” and “deficit.”  Unfortunately, in recent days the President seems to be slipping back into that one, losing the momentum he seemed to have been establishing in his inaugural address.  Too bad.  (And oh yes.  There is a way to deal with the debt and the deficits and get tons of things done too.  It’s called the People’s Budget [4].  Unfortunately, it was not developed by two old reactionaries like Simpson and Bowles, but rather by two old progressives like Raul Grijalva and Bernie Sanders.  Which of course has meant that it has received virtually no attention in the mainstream media since it was first published in 2011.)    Maybe someday we’ll have a progressive Democrat in the White House, who will take the debate to the substantive side and keep it there.  Alan Grayson in 2016, anyone?

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1.    Jonas, S., Dr. J.'s Commentary: Controlling the Agenda, 9/10/2008, http://www.buzzflash.com/articles/jonas/126

2.    Jonas, S., “Bi-Partisanship in Iraq,” The Political Junkies, http://thepoliticaljunkies.org/tpjmagazine/2006/07/06/ideas-for-democrats-vii-bipartisanship-on-iraq.

3.    Jonas, S. “Rappelling Down the Fiscal Cliff,”  Dec. 12, 2012, http://truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/item/17688-gop-loves-big-government-when-it-comes-to-the-military-prison-industrial-complex-and-corporate-subsidies.

4.    Jonas, S.,Grover Norquist’s Wet Dream,” Published on BuzzFlash@Truthout, April 15, 2011; revised, April 20, 2011, and Feb. 6, 2013; http://blog.buzzflash.com/node/12601 

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash@Truthout he is the Managing Editor of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy (http://thepoliticaljunkies.org/).