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The Biggest Losers in the Budget Battle

Who's winning the political battle over the budget and federal spending? Damned if I know.

Politico's Jonathan Allen says the score is "Republicans 1, Democrats 0." The reason: The temporary agreement that will keep the government running another two weeks includes $4 billion in cuts, which is more or less a pro-rated version of the Republican demand for $60 billion in cuts over the rest of the fiscal  year. Democrats, in other words, caved. 

Or did they? The $4 billion comes from a list of cuts that President Obama himself had endorsed. In other words, they were spending reductions Democrats were ready to make anyway. As Ezra Klein notes in "Wonkbook" this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman is practically gloating about the terms of this temporary extension. Meanwhile, polls suggest President Obama's already good prospects for re-election continue to improve, albeit slowly and tentatively.

But if the political future isn't clear to me, the policy future is. And it doesn't look bright. One way or another, federal spending both for the rest of 2011 and for 2012 is going to decline. Even in the highly unlikely event that Republicans were to cave completely, giving Obama everything he's requested in his budgets, valuable federal programs on which people depend, from home heating assistance to Pell Grants, would shrink starting next year. States, struggling to balance their own budgets, would make serious cutbacks of their own. And that's on top of the cuts already in the works.

Just in the last few weeks, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for downsizing prisons and reducing Medicaid spending. North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue has proposed closing state parks, reducing school bus service, and zeroing out grants to the non-profits that fill in the gaps of the state's inadequate public services. Florida Governor Rick Scott has proposed to reduce spending on Everglades restoration and reduce spending on the public schools by roughly 10 percent per student

Some of these cuts make sense on their own terms; plenty of programs need reform. But on the whole these represent fairly drastic reductions in services, as well as a net reduction in economic stimulus at a time when the economy still needs stimulating. And that's to say nothing of the long-term effects. "The really striking thing about all this isn’t the cruelty--at this point you expect that--but the shortsightedness," Paul Krugman writes today. "What’s supposed to happen when today’s neglected children become tomorrow’s work force?"

Is there a chance to turn this around? Maybe incrementally, with the right kind of leadership and grassroots activity. Governors like Scott, for example, have made themselves vulnerable politically by simultaneously calling for more tax cuts that will skew their benefits toward the wealthy. The massive demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin suggest the left may have more energy than it seemed at first (at least to me).

But, overall, I'm not optimistic. This is what happens when a party, and its political leaders, spend a generation rhetorically embracing idea that the government spends too much money. Eventually deeds have to match the words.