The budget debate and the importance of political narrative

Opinion Zone,Lachlan Markay

Narrative drives policy in DC. If you doubt it, ask a member of the House Progressive Caucus. Set the terms of the debate, and you have shifted the Overton Window in your favor. So it's been quite striking to see the budget narrative's rightward shift in the past few weeks.

There are three budgets being proposed: Paul Ryan's Path to Prosperity, the President's Bowles-Simpson deficit commission plan, and the House Progressive Caucus's People's Budget. For the sake of argument, let's put the Ryan budget and the HPC budget about equivalent distances from the political center, in their respective directions.

The president's plan, though - and this is what I find striking - is, as Mother Jones put it, "a center or center-right proposal." It is therefore telling, in terms of the budget narrative, that the Bowles-Simpson plan has now been cautiously endorsed not just by the president, but by top House Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Nancy Pelosi, and by Center for American Progress president John Podesta. Considering that all three of those prominent Democrats had, mere months ago, dismissed the Bowles-Simpson plan as "fundamentally unbalanced and unrealistic," to use Podesta's characterization, their warming to it demonstrates the extent to which the narrative has shifted.

Dyed-in-the-wool liberals, meanwhile, are getting worried. Progressive Caucus members are sounding the alarm on leadership's impending embrace of Bowles-Simpson, according to Mother Jones.

The party's liberal wing in Congress is already worried that their members will end up standing alone. Bowles-Simpson is "very short-sighted both politically and economically…it's a disappointment to hear these kinds of discussions," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. When asked whether the party will move even further to the right during the deficit debate, Grijalva seemed already resigned to the reality. "The template's already been set," he said, pointing to the huge concessions that Democrats made to the GOP during the budget debate. "If we rolled over this bad in the undercard, I really worry about the main event."

The result of the Ryan plan, therefore, has been to draw the debate to the right, regardless of whether or not the plan is implemented wholesale. Republicans have managed to shift the narrative, and in doing so, have shifted the window of potential policies in their favor. They even had President Obama lauding the importance of fiscal austerity on national television last week.

The president is expected to announce support for at least some tax hikes in his address to the nation on Wednesday, but as Los Angeles Times political analyst Andrew Malcolm wrote, he has already lost the political narrative on this issue. Malcolm argues that the speech is an attempt to win back control over that narrative, which only serves to underscore its importance.

None of this is intended to be a value judgment. I think the Ryan plan is a good step forward, but what I'm trying to show here is the importance of narrative. Control of the narrative, Republicans have demonstrated, can be even more powerful than control of the government.

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