By Isaac Butler
Election nights are beginnings, not endings. It's easy to lose sight of this, given how much work and money goes into just getting your guy into office. Elections provide much easier, cleaner narratives. Governance is messy, confusing, tedious, easy to lose track of.
But there's a lot of unfinished work, and several serious threats on the horizon. And by threats, I do not mean from the GOP. The GOP is the GOP. They're going to do what they do. Our job in resisting that threat is to keep them from being elected, to try to keep the Senate and win back the house in two years, which will be nearly impossible. The threat in governance comes instead from the bigness of the tent of our party and the center-right bias of our media. And the unfinished work comes from our inability to push the Democratic party sufficiently to the left on several key issues.
The biggest threat, and the one that will come up the soonest (likely before Obama is even reinaugurated) is to the social safety net. Thos threat comes not from the GOP, but rather directly from Obama himself. The President has threatened time and again to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the chopping block for a grand bargain, and, with his rhetoric of reigning in the "excesses" of the 60's and 70's, seems to sincerely believe that cutting the social safety net is a good idea. Furthermore, with the terrible Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as a basic model, Washington is captivated with the idea that making life harder for the poor and elderly is a winner both economically and at the ballot box.
The only reason why the social safety net was preserved in the Debt Ceiling Debacle is that the GOP refused to take "yes" for an answer. I'm not confident that, as we near the "fiscal cliff" the same thing will happen. Many have said that Obama's Grand Bargain was simply a bluff, and with the fiscal cliff putting him in a much better bargaining position, he will work to protect entitlements. I don't know how many times Obama has to say that he wants to cut the social safety net before people will believe him, but here's that off the record interview he did with the Des Moines Register. He says within it that he wants to use the grand bargain and Simpson Bowles as a model for reducing the deficit, and he plans to stick by his pledge not to return to Clinton-era tax rates for those making under $250K a year. In other words, our President wants to keep taxes unreasonably low, and cut the social safety net to do it. He doesn't want to do it to the extremes of the other party, but he wants to do it.
If the Presdient fails to do this, if no bargain is met, we hit the fiscal cliff, which may send us in the short term into a second recession but also would also pull the status quo of the Federal Government far over to the left by raising taxes to Clinton-era levels and making the majority of cuts in defense. In other words, the power is actually in the hands of the progressive wing of the Democratic party here. We've elected solid progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. We have to make sure that electing better Democrats leads to a better-acting Democratic party. And that's only going to happen if we keep the pressure on.
I cannot begin to express how excited and relieved I was by last night's results. How good it felt. I was also two sheets to the wind and eating afghan pizza in a basement in Minneapolis, but I'm pretty sure it had more to do with watching progressives win on social issues, win key Senate races and retain the Presidency. I worry that we'll think the hard work is done, that we'll relax. Now is obviously a time for joy, but in the midst of our celebrations, let's not forget what lies ahead.
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias has an important reminder: The fiscal cliff is not a cliff.