Upending conventional wisdom
Question: The conventional political wisdom is that the American public will reject politicians who propose or embrace a plan to bring the federal budget into balance through tax hikes and/or deep spending cuts. Is this a leadership challenge without a good solution? Can there be leadership without follow-ship?
The following responses come from four of the fellows that make up the Coro New York 2011 class.
The dangers of leadership
True leadership is often incompatible with "follow-ship," or making decisions based primarily on the popular will of constituents. Reforming the health-care system, balancing the federal budget and facilitating other systemic changes entails long-term thinking and tough decision-making, for which the public tends to lack the patience and capacity. Thus we elect representatives to act as our political trustees. But leadership is risky. In standing up for change, politicians also stick their necks out. Indeed, in the lead up to the recent midterm elections, "Obama-care" became a rallying cry for Republican and Tea Party candidates. An elected official's greatest challenge is to balance her leadership with her desire and ability to get re-elected. The time, energy, and ego that political life requires leads officials to weigh the latter much more than the former. Elected officials should think of politics less as a career and more as a forum to advocate for positive change. Otherwise they may look back on many years in office but few substantive accomplishments. - Max Nardini
Poor conventional wisdom
This conventional wisdom is false. The American public's appetite for tax hikes or cuts in spending depends significantly on the broader economic environment that those policies are made in and followed by. In 1993, through the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, President Clinton enacted what was arguably the largest tax hike in American history. It was projected to bring in an additional $241 billion over five years. Rather than penalizing President Clinton for his tax hike, the voters overwhelmingly reelected him in 1996. This stands in stark contrast to how they treated George H. W. Bush after he raised taxes. This tax hike occurred amidst a difficult recession and therefore the public (and electorate) responded much more negatively.
The response to these policies also depends on who or what the target of these policies are. Who is being taxed? What programs are going to be cut? It would probably be much harder politically to raise taxes on the poor or the middle class than on the wealthy. That is not to say that it would be "easy" to raises taxes on the wealthy either. In Clinton's 1993 bill he raised taxes on the top 1.2 percent while lowering them for many people in lower tax brackets. All tax hikes are not equal. The same logic goes for budget cuts. Certain programs are more popular than others. Some affect more influential constituencies than others as well. I do not know which are the most popular programs or which ones have the most congressional and lobbying support behind them. I would imagine, however, that the president could find this out.
In regard to the larger question of leadership without follow-ship, I do not believe that this is possible. Built into the concept of leadership is the ability to move others. In the end, a "leader" without followers is either an un-empowered individual or a powerful dictator. - Daniel Abramson
For reasons too complex to fully detail here, voting Americans have embraced politicians seeking to balance budgets through tax hikes and deep spending cuts. President Reagan oversaw deep cuts in education, health care and workforce development. And as Daniel Abramson mentions, one recalls President Clinton's 1993 promise to raise taxes in order to balance the budget. However one construes their respective legacies, it is difficult to claim that the American public rejected either of these two-term presidents.
The task, then, is to level with the American public: we need a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to lastingly address America's fiscal woes. Interpreting the Bowles-Simpson report from President Obama's deficit commission, in light of its critique by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, marks a pathway forward. Letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for income levels above $250,000, taxing capital gains, cutting procurement spending by the Department of Defense, and removing agricultural subsidies for large farms are examples of feasible policy options. President Obama, by pursuing the concurrent strategy outlined above, can restore our nation's fiscal health. Let us hope that his administration summons the political--and moral--courage to do so. - Andrew Wilkes
Uprooting prevailing political wisdom
There are several issues at stake here. Can the American government make drastic spending cuts or institute tax hikes? If the need is identified, properly defined and presented to the American people through appropriate channels: yes. If the right cuts are made so as not to significantly alter the everyday lives of American citizens: yes.
The "conventional political wisdom" is correct in that the lone politician who proposes cutting a program or increasing taxes risks attacks from both sides of the aisle. However, the prevailing "political wisdom" must be uprooted in this difficult and uncertain period in global history.
It seems that at the root of the spending and tax problem is a deficiency in the behavior of the American public, deepened through citizens' misaligned expectations of their leaders. With the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing readjustment of the global financial order, everyday life has indeed changed, and Americans cannot look to the comparably lush times of decades past as an example of "how things should be." They want their representatives in Congress to reinforce this status quo.
Furthermore, in such troublesome economic and political times, politicians have reelection on their minds rather than the health of the republic. Legislators' priorities are out of whack: they fear the repercussions of passing law that could potentially harm the fortunes of their contributors, rather than protect their constituents.
With their ears to the ground, as it were, politicians are in a unique position to change these behaviors by introducing new information that can shape and re-frame the ongoing debate over government spending. Perhaps there is no "good" solution, as there are inherent risks involved in questioning, challenging and renegotiating the established economic order. As necessary as they are, these changes will be unpleasant. Leaders can indeed exist without followers, but these necessary changes of perception--and the equally essential changes that must be made to existing tax structures--cannot take place without a quorum of red and blue legislators willing to risk their short-term political longevity for long-term financial stability.
The federal budget shortfalls cannot be solved through leadership without followership. Unlike the political map, the nation's budget is not a zero-sum game; changes to tax structures can in turn provide more federal services for school support and more breaks and benefits for struggling small businesses. Gaining the momentum to enact spending cuts on capital-draining defense budgets, for example, should not be pursued by a lone politico; these budgetary decisions are no-brainers and must be made in concert with citizens and caucuses in strained economic times. - Matthew Spector
November 30, 2010; 10:33 AM ET
Category: Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:
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