article

06.24.11

The GOP vs. Democracy

Washington assumes both parties deserve blame for our problems. But as Michael Tomasky argues, the true fault lies with the GOP and its maximalist demands.

It’s about time the Democrats started saying openly what has been clear for months or even years now—that as long as economic recovery would work to the political benefit of Barack Obama, the Republicans have been, are, and will be in favor of sabotaging the economy. Senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin made the point in a press conference in the Capitol Thursday. Noting that his GOP colleagues are coming out against business tax cuts (read that again: Republicans against tax cuts for businesses) that Democrats happen to support, Schumer said, “It almost makes you wonder if they aren't trying to slow down the economic recovery for political gain.” Well, not almost. Certainly. And I don’t “wonder.” I think it’s obvious. But this is a start.

Washington is a city of conspiracies, but far and away the most pernicious one is the fiction, in which one must participate if one wants to be regarded as a “serious” person, that both parties are more or less equally to blame for the present malfunctioning of our democracy. One hears this all the time at the sort of panels, dinners, and seminars I attend. The topic is our energy future, our fiscal prospects, whatever. Discussion turns to obvious remedies, which inevitably involve the government taking some minimal amount of action, or the investment of a few modest public shekels. The symposiast will then note, sighing forlornly, that we appear to be light years away from consummating even these modest actions. He will then bemoan a vague “lack of political will” or “absence of leadership” as the reason for the inertia.

Nonsense. There’s nothing vague about it. It’s crystal clear. We can’t do these things because of the extreme nature of the Republican Party and the right-wing noise machine that enforces such rigid ideological purity. Period and end of story. I think most people at these panels and dinners know this deep down. But it’s thought impolite to say it. Often it’s a technical violation of law to say it, since most of these events are sponsored by nonprofit organizations that must be scrupulous about their nonpartisanship to keep the taxman at bay. Whatever the reason, the conspiracy has produced a culture that refuses to acknowledge one of its fundamental truths.

Eric Cantor’s withdrawal from the Biden budget talks shows yet again that the GOP cannot negotiate—because negotiating means accepting something you don’t like.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event devoted to infrastructure. Discussion focused on the infrastructure bank proposal of John Kerry. It would seek a modest $10 billion up front for a series of public-private projects that the vast majority of experts agree have been neglected and are desperately needed in this country, as China and Brazil and so many other countries are spending many billions on their transportation and freight systems. But sadly, it’s very difficult to imagine it becoming reality. Why? Not, as Kerry said at the event, the special interests. Oh, they play their role, no question of that. But we can’t have an infrastructure bank because it’s a Democratic idea—and an Obama idea (which it isn’t, technically, but never mind). It is therefore socialism, fascism, and all the rest. The GOP will oppose it en bloc.

There do exist a few well-meaning Republicans. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, for example, is co-sponsoring Kerry’s legislation. Good for her. However: If this bank ever gets close to passage, just watch the noise machine (Fox, talk radio, the blogs, etc.) rev into gear. Republicans will dash away from it as from leprosy. As it happens, Hutchison is retiring, so a) she no longer has to be taken that seriously by her caucus and b) it’s no skin off her nose now, since she’ll not be confronting the voters of Texas again. So she’ll probably stick with this idea. But we have seen many instances of previously fair-minded Republicans being perp-walked through the noise machine and Tea Party rage and emerging the way Iowa Senator Charles Grassley did in the summer of 2009, when he went from negotiating the health-care bill in reasonably good faith to suddenly tweeting about pulling the plug on grandma.      

A common form that the conspiracy takes is the aggrieved call for a third party to rescue us. A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a column lamenting our lack of Hamiltonian national greatness and listed four policies that would constitute it. As Ezra Klein showed, most of those policies are supported by a guy named Obama. This week, Tom Friedman, whose efforts to alert readers and policy makers to our coming environmental disaster I admire, wrote that we need a third party that will do five things:

1. Pass a short-term stimulus
2. Enact Bowles-Simpson
3. Shrink our presence in Afghanistan
4. Raise mileage standards
5. Pass a gas tax

So let’s see. There’s no question that the Democrats would do 1 if they could, and little doubt that they’d do 5 as part of a comprehensive energy-future bill. They already did 4, in 2007, and in fact demonstrated their commitment to the goal by taking the rare step of removing the long-time committee chairman who opposed it. Obama is now doing number 3—haltingly, but on the promised schedule. On Bowles-Simpson, it’s certainly true that many Democrats would hesitate to implement portions of it, especially some of the entitlements recommendations. The Democrats have their own sacred cows, which sometimes get in the way of action.

But most of Friedman’s agenda is impossible not because we lack a third party, but because of the GOP and the noise machine. They won’t permit 1 or 5 under any circumstances. They never lifted a finger to do 4 while they ran Congress. And while liberal Democrats dislike and would fight some parts of Bowles-Simpson, conservative opposition to it is implacable because the commission wants to raise revenues.

Today’s GOP is about ideological maximalism on all fronts. Eric Cantor’s withdrawal from the Biden talks shows it again. They cannot negotiate, because negotiating means accepting something you don’t like, which the noise machine will not permit. And worse, because the noise machine wants Obama to fail and is so powerful, Republican office-holders inevitably arrive at that point too. Mitch McConnell in essence admitted Wednesday that Republicans were opposing Obama on Libya for partisan reasons. They can’t be quite so brazen about the economy, so they hide their political motives behind rhetoric about the deficit. It’s high time the Democrats started pulling back the curtain.