Weekly Briefing

Off to a disappointing start


Kay Hagan seems to be confirming the fears of progressives who doubted her

Quick take: Last Saturday at Elon University, U.S. Senator Kay Hagan launched an ill-conceived and inaccurate attack on President Obama's proposed budget. Her claim that proposed federal budget deficits might warrant a "no" vote are indicative of an elected leader who has either: a) a distressingly shallow grasp of economic policy, b) little real commitment to progressive policy change, or c) both.  

This past Saturday, reporter Mike Baker of Associated Press wrote a story on a speech delivered by Senator Kay Hagan that same day at an event at Elon University. Here are the lead paragraphs as they appeared on WRAL.com:

Elon, N.C.North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan said Saturday that the budget proposal pushed by President Barack Obama would burden the nation with an annual deficit of more than $1 trillion, a shortfall she deemed "completely unsustainable and unacceptable."

Hagan, drawing a contrast from the nation's top Democrat, said she has been working to limit the growth in non-defense spending in the budget. She questioned the Obama plan that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would place the country under a $1.2 trillion annual deficit even a decade from now.

"I agree with a number of ideas in President Obama's budget, but I was particularly concerned about the deficit spending in his proposal," Hagan said in a speech at the North Carolina Associated Press Broadcast annual meeting at Elon University. "It's completely unsustainable and unacceptable."

Hagan's attack comes just days after she made nice with Richard Burr over the issue of tobacco regulation and helped stall proposed bankruptcy reforms championed by North Carolina Congressman Brad Miller that would have improved the rights of homeowners facing foreclosure.

What's going on?

For a freshman senator recently elected, at least in part, on the coattails of a new and popular president and a public commitment to progressive change, Hagan's attack on one of the main centerpieces of that president's agenda is quite an about-face. This is especially true at a time of national economic crisis in which President Obama is fighting pitched battles on a dozen fronts. In such dire times, one might have thought that Hagan would have waited at least a little longer before appearing to abandon ship on such a fundamental matter.

That she did not wait would indicate one of three things about the senator:

a)      That she is a wonky deficit hawk who's simply passionate about economic policy and who has a clear, intellectual dispute with the President that she just couldn't contain;

b)      That she is a feisty and unpredictable maverick who marches to her own drummer; or

c)      That she is an opportunistic and not terribly deep politician whose instincts are to steer a moderate-to-conservative course whenever possible in order to avoid controversy and to preserve her own electoral viability.

So which is it? What kind of new senator does North Carolina have on its hands: A nerdy and argumentative intellectual, a go-it-alone-if-necessary nonconformist, or an affable, ambitious, finger-in-the-wind, "moderate"?

Unfortunately, based upon what we know about the subject she was discussing on Saturday, what we've seen during the last few months, and what we saw during Hagan's decade-long run in the state Senate, the most likely answer appears to be (C).

You're not in Raleigh anymore

Notwithstanding the senator's aggressive attack, her assertions and complaints about the President's budget are way off-base and betray, at best, a very superficial grasp of economic policy and, at worst, a troubling affinity for trickledown theory. Here's why:

While extremely serious, right now, budget deficits are (or ought to be) way down the list of policy concerns in Washington. This is because the preeminent threat to economic health is the recession. As we have learned from past experiences, the greatest threat to our long-term economic well-being is a lasting era of recession. Herbert Hoover was a tough deficit hawk, but his policies did nothing to jumpstart the economy during his failed presidency. Instead, it was federal spending (albeit inadequate) of the New Deal that was most effective in promoting new economic activity.

Right now, Priority One for the American economy is to put people back to work and get things moving again. Deficits will be terrible for some years to come – regardless of what we do. The Bush administration's commitment to tax cuts for the rich and casino capitalism have guaranteed that.

Moreover, as has been argued persuasively by Bob Greenstein, the nonpareil fiscal expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, enactment of the Obama budget is actually one of the best chances we have get a handle on the current economic crisis:

"The President's budget represents a bold and courageous proposal to make progress in restoring fiscal discipline while addressing two central problems of our time – a broken health care system and the threat of catastrophic global warming – and other national needs."

In other words, the genius of the President's approach is that he understands the interrelatedness of the problems we face. As he has made clear, it is folly to think that we can really solve the current crisis if we don't aggressively attack the health and energy issues. To suggest, as Hagan, Richard Burr and others on the right have, that the path to restored economic health lies in cutting essential services for the middle class and people in need, is the worst kind of warmed over, trickledown, "Bushanomics." 

Unfortunately, as we're constantly reminded, Americans and much of the media have incredibly short memories and are suckers for politicians who seem to talk tough and against their typecast image. What better way for Hagan to limit political risk and curry favor with the influential business community and potential conservative critics during tough times than to follow such a pattern?

Other indicators

By just about any measurement, Kay Hagan is an improvement over her predecessor, Elizabeth Dole. She's clearly a more modern, caring, and engaged person. Unfortunately, she also seems to have a Dole-like tendency to project an image that skews more progressive than her actual performance. This was clearly Hagan's pattern in the state Senate, where she was anything but an economic policy geek, maverick or fighting progressive of any kind.

To the contrary, she was, from Day One, an unflinching loyalist to the Democratic establishment's behind-closed-doors, "bidness"-friendly style of governing. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to name a solitary instance in which she crossed "the powers that be" by fighting a public battle for a progressive cause she believed in – much less a losing or unpopular one.

And so it appears it will be in the U.S. Senate. In keeping with the state's sad tradition of uninspiring, moderate-to-conservative Democratic Senators and Congressman of limited influence (a tradition broken in recent years only by Mel Watt, and occasionally, Miller, David Price a few others) Hagan seems to have decided – at least thus far – to throw in once again with the establishment.

She may not yet be a lost cause, but it appears her constituents will have their work cut out for them if they hope to move her to live up to the mantra of "change" (and the political coattails) that she once seemed to embrace. 

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