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BLANKLEY: Debt doom refocuses politics

Crisis in Europe is driving demand for spending cuts here

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2011

At the risk of giddy overoptimism, I have the hunch that the American voting public is beginning to demand legislating that actually deals with the nation's problems. There is creeping - still ambiguous - evidence of this, starting with the national polling data.

I argued in December that President Obama's support for extension of the Bush tax cuts would not end up helping him once the 2011 legislating season started picking up steam because the president is toward the left side of the political spectrum and the public currently is toward the right - particularly on the matter of public debt and deficit.

Consider the recent polling. Using the reliable RealClearPolitics national average of polling, the president's job approval was about 45 percent positive, 49 percent negative at election time in November - down about 4 percent. He inched up over the holidays to about even and then in early January, before Congress was getting back into the controversial issues, it rose upward to about 49 percent positive, 46 percent negative - plus 3 percent.

In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting and the president's exceptionally well-received speech, his job approval level reached a high of 51 percent positive, 43 percent negative in late January - an 8-point advantage. The latest numbers are back down to 48.8 percent positive to 45.3 percent negative - a 3.5 percent positive for the president - but a 5-point drop in the first month of substantive policy argument domestically and conspicuous turmoil abroad.

Then, last week came the president's proposed 2012 budget that was poorly received - even by The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Associated Press, MSNBC and the rest of the liberal media - all of them accusing the president of failing to lead on the great issue of debt and deficit. His advisers then rushed him out for a press-conference repair job, where the come-away presidential quote was that the Washington press corps was "impatient" with him on his handling of the deficit.

But the building evidence is that the public is also impatient. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's approval level is shooting up in the polls as he loudly and decisively cuts the budget (including government pensions) to deal with his state's emergency.

The public still has clearly in mind the riots in Athens, London and Paris and the deficit crisis in Greece, Ireland, Spain, Britain, France, Portugal and more of the European Union. For the first time, it is clear to all the world that modern, successful, stable Western democracies can actually run out of money and have their borrowing requests virtually rejected by the international bond market.

The fiscal reality of crisis in Europe is driving the political reality of impatience in American politics.

And now we have the astounding spectacle in Wisconsin, where the Democratic state senators have left the state rather than attend the vote for modest but necessary cuts in public-employee benefits proposed by new Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who was elected to do precisely what he is proposing, including restricting public-employee union collective-bargaining powers.

Compounding the spectacle is the Cairo-like demonstrating by tens of thousands of union members - particularly teachers who have called in "sick," thus forcing the closure of many Wisconsin public schools. Of course, unlike Cairo, Wisconsin is part of the American democracy, which has just had a fair and honest biennial election where the people were able to speak and choose their leaders.

While we do not have reliable polling on the Wisconsin controversy, it was a telltale sign over the weekend when the head of the teachers union urged the teachers to go back to work. Public unions are in a justifiably low standing with the public.

And after three years of private-sector firings, plus 9 percent unemployment, salary cuts, home-mortgage crises and 401(k) shrinkage - the 91 percent of the American work force employed in that private sector (53 percent in small businesses with even lower benefits) is entitled to feel little sympathy for Wisconsin schoolteachers receiving an average of $89,000 in salary and benefits and contributing zero to their pension plan and only 5 percent to their medical insurance while the average private-sector employee contributes 29 percent.

The president's strong support for the public-worker union lines up - at least for the time being - both a state and federal policy debate that may well yield needed deficit-education legislation and dangerous political waters for the Democratic Party. The Democrats seem to be prepared to defend the idea of not dealing with the deficit crisis. Have the party strategists, including those in the White House, really thought through the electoral implications of that decision?

Of course, huge, good news for America on an unrelated topic may break out somewhere - although probably not in the Middle East, Mexico, Europe or Asia - and I hope it does. But if deficits and debt continue to be the defining issues of American politics for the next 18 months - and if the Democrats from the White House to the statehouses stay in their current head-in-the-sand posture - they may be approaching a nasty electoral meltdown of their party in November 2012.

Tony Blankley is the author of "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century" (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.

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