Democratic Convention 2012

Denialist Democrats

The party of government refuses to even entertain the possibility that we can no longer afford it

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CHARLOTTE—What was your favorite unintentionally revealing moment of Tuesday night's kickoff of the Democratic National Convention? Was it the welcome-to-Charlotte video whose narrator let slip that "government is the only thing that we all belong to"? Perhaps Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's exhortation to "make the will of the people the law of the land"? Or former Ohio gov. Ted Strickland's thunderous, populist twaddle about "economic patriotism"?

All of these were fun, but for me the biggest direct reveal of how current Democratic rhetoric leads to bad public policy was one of the evening's honorary former Republicans, Cincinnati firefighter Doug Stern. "The Republican Party left people like me," Stern complained. "Somewhere along the way, being a public employee—someone who works for my community—made me a scapegoat for the GOP. Thank goodness we have leaders like President Obama and Vice President Biden who still believe that public service is an honorable calling."

It was classic major-party Manicheasm: Eastasians do bad things for the simple reason that their hearts are bad; Eurasians' hearts are good, so they don't do bad things.

In this idyllic landscape of Democratic magical thinking, there is no state and local budget crises, no unaffordable and underfunded defined-benefit public pension obligations, nothing at all standing in the way of "investing" in our public safety, except (in ex-Republican Stern's words) "right-wing extremists." Vallejo, California is not bankrupt because of public employee pensions, and the rest of the state is not following suit. It's a hell of a place, this Democrat-land. Wish I could live there.

Last night's speeches were notable less for what they contained and more for what they did not: any engagement with the issue of having a debt load (of $16 trillion) that is now larger than GDP, of having a long-forecasted entitlement time bomb marching northward toward 100 percent of federal spending, of having underfunded obligations in the trillions of dollars promised by politicians addicted to handing out "free" benefits.

"If you want to get America back to work, you don't fire cops, teachers, nurses and firefighters. You invest in them," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). It really is that simple. Keynote speaker and mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro offered a similarly basic formula: Spend Invest more money on education, and education will improve. It's worked so well up to now.

"We have to come together and invest in opportunity today for prosperity tomorrow," Castro said, in a speech long on policy banality. "We know that you can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education." And we know that you can't be "pro-education" unless your idea of education policy involves spending more money on it.

Virginia Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley summed up this worldview succinctly, in a question to Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan: "How much less, do you really think, would be good for our country? How much less education would be good for our children?" When you are unbounded by spending restraints, government budgets can be boiled down to a simple question: How much, at long last, do you care?

What makes last night's fiscal denialism even more appalling was that many of the speakers themselves have had to fight tooth and nail with public sector unions over compensation and work rules. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel outraged police and fire unions by tackling pension reform and pointing out that "city government is not an employment agency." Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor leader, has called teachers unions an "unwavering roadblock to reform." Newark Mayor Cory Booker has been there as well. Needless to say, such talk was absent from the podium last night.

One of the great ironies of this convention already is that speaker after speaker denounces Republicans for being unable to tell the truth or get their facts straight. Meanwhile, one of the most important truths of modern governance—we are well and truly out of money—sits neglected in the corner. This might be a great way to rally the Democratic base, but it's thin gruel for the majority of Americans who think, correctly, that the nation's finances have spun out of control.