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Alice Rivlin's defense of “centrists” is a case study of myopia and denialism.

5 min read

I bear no particular grudge against Alice M. Rivlin.  She appears to have led a fine life of public service, and, as discussed below, considers herself a “moderate Democrat.”  She is the type of moderate Democrat who was a member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission – and so I disagree strongly with some of her positions, but again have not really accrued any overwhelming reasons to dislike her.  (Perhaps others here will educate me.)

Nonetheless, her recent Brookings column, “In defense of centrists,” did jump out at me as a perfect example of what is wrong with the modern Democratic Party leaders: (i) an inability to understand that the radicalism of the Republican Party makes the phrases, and philosophy, of “moderate” and “centrist” not just meaningless, but dangerous, and (ii) a self-defeating credo of compromise for compromise’s sake.  

As an example of the purported benefits of appealing to Republican moderates, Ms. Rivlin writes:

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose the Affordable Care Act (ACA) had been the product of a good-faith negotiation between Democrats and Republicans aimed at producing a bill that moderates in both parties could support. Moderate Republicans could have supported income related federal subsidies for households purchasing health insurance in electronic markets, but might have insisted on penalties for non-enrollment, rather than a mandate, a less generous benefit package, additional flexibility for states to adapt the program to their particular conditions, or less reliance on expanding Medicaid. Right wing Republicans would still have opposed any expansion of federal subsidies for health care, and left-wing Democrats who favor single payer might have dropped out as well. But a centrist compromise with the support of moderates in both parties could have provided broader, more stable increases in health insurance coverage than the ACA. Bipartisan buy-in would have allowed the parties to fix glitches in the law as experience revealed them and kept Republicans from demonizing Obamacare, misrepresenting its faults, preventing its improvement, and sabotaging its implementation.

What alternative universe (or “thought experiment”) is Ms. Rivlin living in?  President Obama and the Democrats spent more than a year practically begging any so-called Republican “centrists” to join in this healthcare reform effort – and began the entire process by basing it on a Republican policy idea! I don't think I need to litter this post with hyper-link jumps to state the obvious:  Republicans bitterly opposed even their own idea through Congress, through the Supreme Court, at the state level, through demagoguery, through election insults, and with continued legislative and regulatory sabotage to date.  What Ms. Rivkin, and her Simpson-Bowles Democratic cohorts, refuse to recognize is that they have no negotiating partner in the modern Republican party.  In addition, their need to consider themselves “centrists” or the “moderate middle” — in a time of increasing Republican radicalization — only moves the country closer to the Republicans’ rightward drift.  Indeed, this is how we got 17 Democratic Senators voting to roll back the Dodd-Frank banking regulatory reforms under the guise of “centrism,” when such conduct would have been indistinguishable from Republicanism for all of my adult life.

But what about Democrat’s excesses?  Ms. Rivkin writes:

Similarly, a genuinely bipartisan tax reform negotiation could have produced far more stable, pro-growth tax policy than the recent Republicans-only tax bill without ballooning future deficits. Many Democrats supported corporate rate cuts accompanied by broadening the corporate tax base to reduce revenue loss and would have supported many of the Republican cuts in individual taxes if the total package had been less egregiously tilted toward the very rich. However, since Democrats were not allowed in the drafting room and none of them voted for the bill, they are now demonizing it, much as Republicans did Obamacare, and exaggerating its faults. Democrats are alleging middle-class taxpayers will not benefit, although they actually will, if the cuts for them are extended beyond 2025, which seems likely. Unfortunately, the one-party action not only adds trillions to the debt, but continuing partisan rancor fosters uncertainty about future tax policy, which makes planning harder for households and businesses alike. 

Similarly?!?  What a f*cking joke.  And what a self-enforced, delusional effort to find a non-existent, false equivalence.  Republicans drafted their tax bill in secret, based on hard-line, unilateral Republican principles, disregarded all established process, allowed no amendments, hearings or meaningful CBO scores, and rammed it through in a late-night, party-line vote immune from the filibuster.  Can you imagine anything more delusional — and from a Democrat no less – than to actually pick the ACA and the Republican tax bill as a comparison worthy of demonstrating how “both sides are guilty”?!?  Indeed, this is Ms. Rivlin's primary thesis; she writes: “[T]he escalation of partisan rivalry into tribal warfare was building long before Trump or even the Tea Party.  Democrats are not entirely blameless.”

The bottom-line, although awkward to express in polite company, is that Ms. Rivkin is an absolute idiot on this subject.  To the extent that she, and similarly thinking Democratic leaders, exist in power, they are a dangerous and misguided force. ( I also note that Ms. Rivkin’s plea for “centrism” includes a demand to reduce “entitlements,” you know all the retirement and health benefits that you have been paying for all your life and which were apparently fiscally sustainable for prior decades when the country was not as rich as it is today.) 

Ms. Rivkin wrote that her column was inspired specifically by a disagreement with Paul Krugman, when he wrote in his far superior column “Budgets, Bad Faith and ‘Balance’” (emphasis added):

Over the past couple of months Republicans have passed or proposed three big budget initiatives. First, they enacted a springtime-for-plutocrats tax cut that will shower huge benefits on the wealthy while offering a few crumbs for ordinary families — crumbs that will be snatched away after a few years, so that it ends up becoming a middle-class tax hike. Then they signed on to a what-me-worry budget deal that will blow up the budget deficit to levels never before seen except during wars or severe recessions. Finally, the Trump administration released a surpassingly vicious budget proposal that would punish not just the vulnerable but also most working families.

Looking at all of this should make you very angry; it certainly infuriates me. But my anger isn’t mostly directed at Republicans; it’s directed at their enablers, the professional centrists, both-sides pundits, and news organizations that spent years refusing to acknowledge that the modern G.O.P. is what it so clearly is.

I’m sorry Ms. Rivlin, but Mr. Krugman’s condemnation of you, and your ilk, is spot-on.  I would like to say:  “Thank you for your service.  But time has passed you by.  Please get out of the way now.”   

Going forward, the principal challenge, benefit and obligation of the Democratic Party is to call out, educate and defeat the growing radicalism of the Republican Party.   The two most necessary attributes of Democratic leaders will need to be strength and clarity.  Putting aside the Republican fetish for the word, there is a time when the charge of “appeasement” becomes appropriate.  Krugman has it right. 

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