Al Franken with Blaine Soltis (photo: humanesocietyoftheunitedstates)

MINNEAPOLIS – Sen. Al Franken will give a speech tomorrow at Netroots Nation about the need for progressive infrastructure as a firewall to protect the middle class. In this excerpt from tomorrow’s speech, he is unsparing in even subtly questioning the patriotism of those who would threaten the survival of the middle class:

Medicare, and Medicaid, and investment in infrastructure, and public education, and workers’ rights, and civil rights, and equal under the law – these aren’t just good progressive ideas, they’re examples of traditional American values.

And when Republicans talk about destroying these things, they’re talking about turning their backs on the America we’ve built. They’re talking about ripping apart the fabric of our society. They’re talking about a transformation of our country – about undermining our tradition so radically, they might as well be tearing stars off the flag.

I talked to Franken via phone today, as he returned home from a funeral for a soldier killed overseas. His remarks tomorrow are really connected to the fear that we are seeing a flickering out of the American dream. “We have the greatest disparity in income since the 1920s. The middle class dream is fading, and we’re losing the argument on the economy. We need to gain back the initiative, and convince people that it’s ridiculous to be gutting Medicare, to essentially end it, in order to give huge tax cuts.”

But I wanted to ask about how Democrats can deliver that message in a time when the Vice President is engaged in talks to cut federal spending even during a demand crisis. It seems hard to convince people of the importance of your efforts to protect the middle class when the middle class doesn’t feel protected by the actions.

“I think we’ve ceded too much ground,” said Franken of the deficit talks. “When you have a Republican House and a Senate where the Dems can’t get cloture on anything, you’re going to have by definition a compromise. But we’re compromising with people who don’t have compromise in mind. Mitch McConnell said his top priority is to defeat President Obama. They win by country losing.”  [cont’d.]

Franken said that the ideology of tax cuts to spur a recovery and create jobs is “not based on any evidence whatsoever.” He noted that Clinton and Reagan raised taxes and growth and jobs leapt up afterwards, and that Bush’s tax cuts led to the worst job growth of the postwar era. In addition, we currently have the lowest tax rates in 60 years and we’re not creating jobs. “I’ve seen first-hand now, there’s a lot of self-delusion in the Republican Party,” he said. “If it’s in your interest to believe it, you do.”

Franken lamented the poor choices made in an effort to compromise. “(The Republicans) say we have to compromise, here’s where it starts. They say no tax increases whatsoever. We say, it starts with equal amounts of cuts and increases in revenue. If you’re making a compromise between an unreasonable position that makes no sense whatsoever, and a reasonable one, why are we compromising? What’s to compromise?”

Of course, Republicans are leveraging the default of the US government through denying an increase of the debt limit. “In a game of chicken, the irrational person has an advantage over the rational,” Franken said. This is certainly borne out by the trajectory of the talks.

But I asked why we didn’t use the hammer that Democrats have in the debate: the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Gridlock, in this case, will lead to that expiration, which would eliminate almost entirely the medium-term deficit. And as Franken said, we had tremendous job growth with Clinton-era tax rates. Democrats could enter the discussion saying that Republicans either compromise, offer some near-term stimulus, or the gridlock will continue, the Bush tax cuts which fall mostly on the rich will expire, and the entire deficit will be filled with revenues.

“There are other things to do,” said Franken, saying that allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceuticals would save a lot of money, drawing down from Iraq and Afghanistan would do the same, and eliminating oil subsidies as well (he pointedly didn’t mention killing ethanol subsidies, which he opposes). Of course, Democrats can simply say that they will abide by nothing that deviates from that current baseline which puts things in balance, and if Republicans disagree on all options, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will do all the work.

“We’re starting in the middle,” Franken said. “It’s a mistake.”

And of course, this all deviates from the real conversation on jobs, which you cannot do anything meaningful on the deficit without, along with the tax revenue that goes with it. “Erskine Bowles said we can’t grow ourselves out of this. I said, maybe, but we’re not going to get out of it if we don’t have growth.”

David Dayen

David Dayen