Judd Gregg, who hates populism, had an extended hissy fit on MSNBC yesterday, when he was actually challenged to name what programs he would cut in the name of fiscal austerity. This is what always trips up these deficit hawks, who try to scare the public with their warnings about the deficit but don’t want to go on the record with the agenda of leaving the poor and the elderly to fend for themselves. I particularly liked this segment about education:

GREGG: Well, first off, nobody’s saying no money for schools. What an absurd statement to make.

BREWER: Well, I’m asking you, what we’re…

GREGG: And what a dishonest statement to make. On its face you’re being fundamentally dishonest when you make that type of statement.

This is from a guy who said that eliminating federal agencies was a “great idea,” and whose party has wanted to eliminate the Department of Education for over 30 years.

In reality, Gregg is a “deficit peacock,” someone who calls a lot of attention to himself with fears about “the deficit” but then, pressed for real answers to how to reduce the deficit, come up with gimmicks to hide their actual agenda. These are the people who say things like “the federal budget is like a family budget, and when things are tough, a family tightens their belt” (actually, no; they get another job).

That’s why it’s so depressing that the President came out with just such peacockery this week:

Wait, it gets worse. To justify the freeze, Mr. Obama used language that was almost identical to widely ridiculed remarks early last year by John Boehner, the House minority leader. Boehner then: “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt.” Obama now: “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.”

What’s going on here? The answer, presumably, is that Mr. Obama’s advisers believed he could score some political points by doing the deficit-peacock strut. I think they were wrong, that he did himself more harm than good. Either way, however, the fact that anyone thought such a dumb policy idea was politically smart is bad news because it’s an indication of the extent to which we’re failing to come to grips with our economic and fiscal problems.

The actual effects of this non-security discretionary spending freeze isn’t huge; letting the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expire, moving to a saner health care system and ending unnecessary wars are the actual paths to fiscal stability. But this cedes rhetorical ground to a Republican Party which really wants to talk about deficits, not deal with them, now or in the future (and we shouldn’t deal with them at ALL in a time of mass joblessness). Triangulation is a tricky game; when you give so much to your foes, what you gain for yourself you lose for your colleagues.

The President did better at his question time today. But over the long term, failing to push back at these narratives will not just paint Democrats as weak, but cripple the nation.

David Dayen

David Dayen