I’ve noticed a lingering claim that the reason we won’t see a pivot to jobs over the next several months is that the progressive movement hasn’t sold the concept of the public good and the proper government. I thought we were supposed to be the ones too focused on rhetorical flourish and not the hard calculus of votes and realistic options! Anyhoo, Greg Sargent uses some CNN poll results to highlight this.

As you may know, the agreement would cut about one trillion dollars in government spending over the next ten years with provisions to make additional spending cuts in the future. Regardless of how you feel about the overall agreement, do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending included in the debt ceiling agreement?

Approve 65
Disapprove 30

Sixty five percent approve of deal’s spending cuts. But it gets worse. Of the 30 percent who disapprove, 13 percent think the cuts haven’t gotten far enough, and only 15 percent think the cuts go too far. One sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the deal.

Well, yes, that’s what happens when the leadership of both parties, including the President and top Democrats in Congress, agree with the Republican-led argument that we must cut spending now and that it will provide confidence to the business community to invest. There’s some good empirical evidence for this in this Kos/SEIU poll, showing that the priority gap between jobs and the deficit has reduced precipitously as this talk has widened over the last month. When the elite signal is that the deficit is of primary importance and that’s what gets broadcast, small wonder that’s where the debate goes.

But I’m going to take a different view here. It’s true that the public does not believe in a competent, activist government. That’s because government in America has revealed itself to be a total failure over two successive Administrations. Government gets us into wars we never get out of. Government allows Wall Street to destroy the economy and then bails them out for the privilege. Government stands mute in the face of rampant unemployment for going on half a decade.

I have said for over a year now that HAMP hurt liberalism in fundamental ways. Here was a perfect opportunity to show, rather than tell, the virtues of government. And the program ended up as a predatory lending scheme rather than $50 billlion in mortgage relief for struggling families. As Governor-in-Chief the President has not been the capable technocrat on the big issues that he promised. More often things went down like HAMP. We have a small business lending program that just started lending money a year after it passed. We have a financial industry virtually unchanged from the one that sank the economy.

It takes more than rhetoric. When given the opportunity to lead, it takes real-world examples to display the virtues of government. And we really just don’t have them. So I can hardly blame people. I remember talking to Jack Conway last year, and he told me his constituents don’t want to see more spending because they believed it goes into the hands of the banks, or at least not into the hands of the people who need it. Who am I to argue? Thomas Geoghegan said a similar thing when he ran for Congress in Illinois in early 2009. He said that people just don’t feel like they’re getting anything for their taxes. And so, when faced with a choice between taxes and spending cuts, they’ll take the cuts, because the taxes have no value.

We can elegantly construct a vision of government that is attractive and desirable. But when it’s undermined by real-world results, the vision is fatally compromised. Not only is the Washington Democratic rhetorical bias toward the deficit over jobs deeply problematic; so is their performance.

David Dayen

David Dayen