Politicians love to be Janus, with a face turned each way. You have to be careful, though. When John Kerry said he voted for a measure before he opposed it, that was being a tad obvious. Normally (as with the Chihuly museum proposal) you oppose something, let time pass, and then say you favor it owing to a few modest concessions.
But this week, our local heroes have come up with an artful new time-compressed version: saying you simultaneously abominate a measure that you just voted for or proposed.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, for instance, says she "hates" her austerity budget, so apparently we shouldn't blame her for proposing it. (It's the stingy voters' fault.) "I hate my budget," she said. "I hate it because in some places I don't even think it's moral." This earns her points for candor and advanced blame-shifting. At least she didn't get a headline: Governor Urges Immoral Act.
And then there is Sen. Patty Murray, voting for the Obama tax-cut measure while deploring the whole thing. Here's how she explained herself in a letter:"I am angry and frustrated that national Republicans, yet again, played political games and held the middle class hostage to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans who need them the least. It is irresponsible, selfish, and wrong.
"At the end of the day, I voted for this tax package to protect middle-class families from a tax hike while extending unemployment benefits for 13 months, continuing the sales tax deduction, cutting payroll taxes, and doing everything we can to create jobs.
"But it came at tremendous cost.
"So I want you to join me in telling Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Republican Leader John Boehner, and their right-wing colleagues that we won’t forget how they put their wealthy special interest backers ahead of the national interest and ahead of hard-working families all across America -– and we’re going to hold them accountable."
Suggested headline: Senator Calls Her Vote "Irresponsible, Selfish, and Wrong." But in this case, it's not her fault: it's those dastardly Republicans. (And oh, by the way, please send money to help defeat them.)
There's a more serious point here, and that is why don't politicians in an age of austerity come up with positive explanations for what they are doing, along the lines of long-term gain for short-term pain? British Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, combines his very deep cuts in spending with more autonomy for local regions as they pick up the slack and gain greater control. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution argues we should "cut to invest," shifting money from ineffective programs to investments in future economic growth. King County Executive Dow Constantine does a good job of giving austerity a good spin, talking about greater productivity, driven by employees.
I suspect that Democrats don't want to suggest that cuts are in any way a good thing, since that might validate the charges of governmental bloat by their critics. Better to say that cuts are "immoral."
But if cuts are to be made, as is clear they must, why not try to do them in a smart fashion — something that progressives can actually defend? Best in my view would be a "cut to be more fair" program, where each cut in services is coupled with a tilting of taxes and loopholes and the like toward greater equity. Gregoire, for instance, could set up a ratio where she pairs cuts in education with equal cuts in loopholes for the wealthy and powerful special interests.
Instead, these politicians shift the blame, avoid offending the powerful, and make the public hate the whole idea of efficiencies, getting rid of useless programs, and reining in public sector benefits. The danger is that the voters, faced with a choice between dumb cuts and smart cuts, will choose the latter.