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The Deficit as a Wedge Issue

A wedge issue is an issue which can be used to turn the different parts of a political coalition against one another. For the democrats, deficit reduction could turn out to be just the wedge issue they need to turn Tea Party Republicans against establishment Republicans. After all, Democrats would love to trim the deficit too. Where they disagree with Republicans is over just how to do it. But that’s also an area where Republicans disagree with one another.

Reducing the deficit is one of things that Tea Party activists care most about. Old guard Republicans want to reduce the deficit too, of course, but not necessarily at the expense of their biggest backers’ interests. The fight within the Republican party over whether or not to eliminate earmarks—taking away one of the main ways members of Congress can reward supporters—is one symptom of this division. Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) and even Tea Party favorite Sen. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) have already tried to explain to their constituents why their own pet projects shouldn’t really count as earmarks.

There are specific issues that Democrats can use to drive a wedge between mainstream and Tea Party Republicans. What Democrats have to do is ally wit Republicans whose main priority is reducing the deficit to cut programs they already generally oppose anyway. As Steve Benen says, ethanol subsidies could provide an opportunity for Democrats to do just that. Two Republican senators, Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) have already proposed letting the subsidies expire both as a way to reduce the deficit and way to reduce government intervention in agriculture. That gives them common cause with environmentalists who argue that converting corn ethanol is at best an expensive and extremely inefficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But that also puts them at odds with Republicans who get big money from the corn-ethanol lobby. And, as Ed Kilgore points out, it puts potential Republican candidates for president in a tough position, since it is almost impossible to win the first primary caucus in Iowa without supporting ethanol subsidies.

Ethanol subsidies, of course, aren’t the only issue over which Democrats and fiscally conservative Republicans can make common cause. That suggests a possible strategy for Democrats over the next two years: ally with fiscal conservatives to target expensive Republican programs they have never liked anyway.

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