Coming in 2011: serious debates over spending and cutting

The surprise Person of the Year: President Obama. Eclipsed politician of the year: Mike McGinn. Most influential: Tea Partiers (though about to be subsumed).

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Paul Volcker, left, has got Obama's ear again

The surprise Person of the Year: President Obama. Eclipsed politician of the year: Mike McGinn. Most influential: Tea Partiers (though about to be subsumed).

Various media have been nominating their Men and Women of the Year.  Put me down as undecided among several. The most deserving have been the men and women sacrificing for us in Iraq, Afghanistan, and waypoints.

President Bush began the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama has continued them. Our troops are scheduled to exit Iraq next year, whether or not a truly stable central government is by then governing the country.  But our involvement in Afghanistan has become disappointingly open-ended, with Obama most recently stating that it likely will be 2014, and perhaps later, before U.S. forces will be leaving that country.

In my judgment, this was a serious policy and political mistake.  It is quite possible that the on-ground 2014 situation in Afghanistan will be no better than it is today; it could be worse. In any case, no vital interest is at stake there to justify the human and material costs we are paying to meet it.  Yet our troops on the ground have maintained high morale and levels of performance, despite the dubiousness of their mission. They deserve our admiration and respect.

The most influential people in the 2010 political year were Tea Partiers, who changed the terms of reference in American domestic politics. Their bottom-up rebellion — mainly against short-term deficits and long-term debt at federal, state, and local level — has shaken formerly complacent elected officials of both major political parties.  Tea Partiers, it turns out, were not the racists or right-wing or religious extremists their critics initially painted them to be.  They were ordinary citizens and taxpayers, more independent than partisan, who rejected complacency for involvement and contributed to the anti-incumbent wave that swept the country in 2010.

Because more Democratic than Republican seats were at stake, Democrats took what Obama termed "a shellacking," losing 63 U.S. House and six U.S. Senate seats. Yet the Tea Party label, of and by itself, was not enough to elect deficient challengers such as Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska. Tea Party populism will be subsumed within both major parties' agendas in 2011.

The most important single event in the 2010 political year, after the November elections, was the lameduck session of the Congress, just concluded. Obama struck a compromise deal with congressional Republicans on extension of Bush-era tax cuts, which otherwise would have expired Dec. 31.

He appeared to lose his way, immediately thereafter, when he denounced extension of upper-income cuts included in his bargain. That angered Republicans with whom he had made the deal.  It also outraged House and other liberal Democrats who denounced Obama for accepting provisions he had characterized so harshly. Opinion surveys, however, showed a strong majority of Americans approving the compromise package, which also contained a healthy measure of near-term economic stimulus.

To everyone's surprise, bipartisanship then blossomed between White House and Congress, and between both parties in the Congress.  A START Treaty with Russia was ratified.  Both Democrats and Republicans dumped a budget containing numerous expensive earmarks and agreed to continue government at current spending levels until a fresh budget could be negotiated next spring — presumably without earmarks. Then, by a surprisingly strong margin, Don't-ask-don't-tell rules, governing gays in the military, were repealed. This was a dramatic development comparable to President Truman's elimination of racial segregation in the military 65 years ago.

The resolution of the tax, budget, dont-ask, and START issues before adjournment cleared them from the new Congress' 2011 agenda in January. The first order of business, then, almost surely will be consideration of legislation cutting short-term federal deficits and long-term debt. A bipartisan group of 18 senators, growing daily, will introduce legislation in the new Congress embodying the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Reduction Commission.

This will provide a starting point for serious debate of taxing and spending options which would have been thought impossible as recently as two years ago.  Medicare, Medicaid, and Pentagon spending, longstanding "tax expenditures" (subsidies and loopholes), and discretionary spending elsewhere in the budget will all be up for debate.  That debate no doubt will consume many months but, once begun, will be hard to stop. Leftover 2010 issues will include immigration, where tough border enforcement must be a precursor to liberalization, and the many legal and political challenges confronting the Obama health-care plan soon after its enactment.

The single person of the year must be President Obama, who began the year indifferently, fell into a political and public-approval hole, and then ran up unexpected victories in the lamduck session. He also returned at year end to the bring-us-together rhetoric of his 2008 electoral campaign and forsook the harsh, partisan broadsides that had characterized many of his statements of 2009-10.

Did Obama return to consensus-seeking language because of Democrats' congressional losses? Or did he do it because it really was where he intended to go after a two-year, more partisan detour? He may not know himself. After his 2008 election, Obama was reported to be reading books about formation of cabinets and governments. Now his aides report that he is reading books about divided governance. One would have hoped he'd have done such reading in his pre-presidential years. But better now than never.

He also has discussed the matter with former President Clinton, who faced a similar situation after congressional losses in 1994, and with aides from earlier White Houses.  Clinton spent almost all of 1995, after 1994 losses, in an intellectual funk, undecided on his future course.  He finally settled on Dick Morris' famous "triangulation strategy" in which he rebuilt his popularity — and ultimate reelection — on a more centrist, issue-by-issue strategy in which he reached across partisan lines.

Since Republicans now control the U.S. House, and can stop any legislation they desire in the Senate, the odds favor Obama's adoption of The Clinton Way, but not waiting many months to do it. The debt/deficit-reduction debate will offer him an immediate chance to show such a leadership style, if he indeed chooses to pursue it.

Liberals, the labor movement, and others in the Democratic Party will not like such a shift.  But, at least for now, Obama is their only horse. Will Obama be challenged within the Democratic Party for the 2012 presidential nomination? Probably. But, at this point, it may go no further than a challenge by Sen. Tom Harkin in his home state of Iowa's early primary.

The central issue for Democratic dissenters, as the year goes on, will be Afghanistan. A sharp setback there, or rise in casualties, could bring a more serious challenge than Harkin's. But it almost surely will not be by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is joined at the hip with Obama on the present Afghan strategy and could not lead an insurgency from his dovish side.

Here at home the men and women of the year in 2010 are the same as those of 2011. They are the ones who will be dealing at state level with the same taxing/spending challenges being addressed at the federal level and in 49 other states. They are Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, and, now, state Rep. Ross Hunter, who has become the single most important figure on these issues in the lower house and who is far more hawkish on them than his upper-house counterpart, state Sen. Ed Murray.

Looming in the background will be the popular State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who has been ahead of the governor and the legislature on taxing/spending discipline all along.  He is a possible candidate for the 2012 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Members of the Seattle City Council will continue to hold center stage in local governance. Mayor Mike McGinn has squandered his time in office, and his credibility, with a single-minded crusade against the underground-tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He has isolated himself from the council, the governor, state legislative leaders, and Seattle voters, except for those in his limited political base. He also has appeared incapable of setting program and spending priorities within the city.

We've seen this before in our city governance but times are tough now and public choices truly important. They're likely to be made without McGinn.

To all, an ever hopeful New Year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of