Why progressives should be fiscal conservatives

A liberal Oregon Congressman makes the case for leaner, activist government.
Crosscut archive image.

Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer, with trademark bow tie

A liberal Oregon Congressman makes the case for leaner, activist government.

No sooner had the electrons dried on my story about Mike McGinn and Jerry Brown than I read Matt Bai's piece in the New York Times about a Northwest liberal who is a fiscal conservative: Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon.

Here's Bai's description of Blumenauer:

Mr. Blumenauer, a seven-term congressman from Portland, Ore., is nobody's idea of a centrist. Bow-tied and erudite in the manner of a prep school headmaster, he is known mostly as a champion of bicycle paths and light rail. (He bikes his way around both Washington and Portland and formed the Bicycle Caucus in the House.) The liberal League of Conservation Voters most recently gave him a perfect 100 rating, while the conservative National Taxpayers Union gave him an "F."

But Mr. Blumenauer sides with the White House on the notion that Democrats need to do something now about the federal debt, starting with cuts in wasteful federal spending (like some farm subsidies and military outlays) and with changes to cherished entitlement programs.

While the issues at hand are reforming Social Security and getting a grip on the national debt, it's more than about strict fiscal conservatism. Blumenauer is no almost-a-Republican Blue Dog Democrat, nor the reincarnation of Paul Tsongas. He's one of a relatively few truly progressive, green Dems who see that fiscal responsibility shouldn't be the province of people who don't believe in government, but the folks who believe that a leaner, more effective, more streamlined, more high-tech, government should be the goal. In other words, the people pushing reform and efficiency the hardest ought to be the ones who believe in active government.

Bai's story includes a great quote from the late U.S. Senator from Maine and onetime presidential and vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie: "What's so damn liberal about wasting money?"

The larger issue Blumenauer raises is that getting reform is essential to moving the Democratic agenda forward:

Mr. Blumenauer argued that if Democrats really want to protect a vast array of federal programs from repeated Republican onslaughts, then they need to bring the costs of the programs in line with reality.

Otherwise, he said, liberals only make it easier for conservative critics of social spending to undermine the entire premise of liberal government. And they make it that much harder to propose new and much-needed investments in, say, infrastructure and education.

This is smart thinking at the state, county, and local level as well as national. The problem is, it takes guts to put into effect because it means bucking entrenched Democratic constituencies like labor. However, Blumenauer's worry is legit: If the people who believe in government can't run it well, it undermines the notion that there is anything such as "good" government, let alone affordable government.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.