As the Ryan plan and the debate over cutting funding Planned Parenthood and the EPA make clear, the ongoing budget battles are really just the latest incarnation of the same old arguments over the role of the budget. There is one difference, though, and it is a difference that works to the clear advantage of conservatives: this time around, (almost) all parties to the debate have accepted the premise that there is an imperative cut government spending (over 1/6 of the budget at least) and to cut it dramatically.
Since conservatives tend to favor smaller government (philosophically, at least), they will have the upper hand in any debate that begins from the premise that a successul outcome requires large cuts in spending. Moreover, the spending cuts passed for the 2011 budget are restricted to the 1/6 of the budget that includes most of the programs that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose. They do not touch military spending, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Barack Obama’s framing of the debate presupposes that it was about cutting the budget, rather than about the role of government. Consequently, he has described the Democrats’ success in terms of the number of dollars that were cut from the budget. As Ezra Klein argues, this sets up a discursive context, under which the ongoing budget debates will be constrained by the imperative to make further cuts. This hurts Democrats in two ways. First, they will probably have to make further cuts to their favored programs. Second, they will likely be forced into austerity measures in the midst of an ongoing employment crisis.
Democrats would be better off if they stop competing with Republicans over who can cut more discretionary spending. They ought instead to recognize that this is a debate about the role and size of government and to make their case on the basis of the programs they have managed to defend and the role of government spending in spurring employment. They may have to agree to cuts, but that doesn’t mean that they have to agree to allow the debate to be determined by who proposes to cut the most.