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07.01.11

Why the GOP Loves the Debt

Republicans portray themselves as champions of fiscal responsibility. But as Michael Tomasky argues, they need the debt to push through their radical and unpopular agenda.

Now Minnesota joins the list of states being gutted by the Republican Party. The government in the state famous for being nice has shut down, because Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wanted to impose a higher income tax on Minnesotans earning $1 million or more a year—a whopping 7,700 people in a state of 5.3 million. There are additional matters—a GOP insistence on a 15 percent reduction in state workers over the next four years, for example. And so the evidence mounts: In Saint Paul and Columbus and Tallahassee and Madison, as in Washington D.C., we are watching something that is no longer a political party in the normal sense, but a group of cynical highwaymen perpetuating a national crisis and then exploiting that very crisis to try to destroy the public sphere.

The GOP House speaker in Minnesota is quoted in the Star-Tribune today inveighing against saddling future generations with debt. I don’t know the man, so I’ll allow for the possibility that he’s sincere. But at the highest levels, the Republican Party cares nothing about the public debt. In fact, it wants more. Americans must understand this.

It is the party of debt. It is the party of deficits. It is the party of recession. It is the party of unemployment. It is the party of inequality. And it is the party of middle-class stagnation and slippage.

It is the party of all these things because it needs these conditions to exist—so that its leaders can scream “Crisis!” But they don’t desire in any meaningful way to fix the crisis. They scream about crisis because what they desire is to use the crisis as an excuse to do things to this country that the hard right has wanted to do for 30 years.

We see it all over the place. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich could have behaved more like other governors around the country who’ve won labor concessions, like New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo. But they sought to go much farther with their “emergency” bills. Why? Well, as long as there’s an economic emergency, they can just repeat “Crisis! Crisis! Crisis!” and a certain percentage of the public and the gullible and hopeful media, which refuses to believe that governmental leaders can possibly be as deceitful as these people are, will buy it.

In the words of Sid Blumenthal, the hard-right GOP governors “are the Koch brothers’ suicide bombers.” Seventy-two Fox contracts await them in a future life.

But the truth is that their corporate benefactors want to get rid of unions. The unpopular public-employee unions are a handy place to start. And a crisis provides the perfect opportunity to do it. It’s also a perfect opportunity to refuse billions in long-awaited rail infrastructure money, as Florida’s Rick Scott and New Jersey’s Chris Christie have done, the better to delegitimize the idea that the federal government should even be in such a business.

Yet these hard-right governors are failing. The “unpopular” public-employee unions turn out to have some defenders: Organizers of a drive to put a repeal of Kasich’s notorious SB 5 on the Ohio ballot this fall just delivered 1.3 million signatures, about six times the required amount. Meanwhile, it’s the governors who are in fact unpopular. Christie is at 43-53 and sinking.  Walker is also at 43, Kasich at 38 percent, and Scott at 29 percent. This matters of course to them and their supporters, but it probably doesn’t matter much to the financial forces behind the GOP as long as they get the job done. As my friend Sid Blumenthal put it to me the other day, “The governors are the Koch brothers’ suicide bombers.” Seventy-two Fox contracts await them in a future life.

The cynicism is most rampant in Washington. Once the economy recovers, Barack Obama, whom most people still basically want to see succeed, will be back to a 53 to 55 percent approval rating, and the rage will have no oxygen. And of course he will under those circumstances be reelected. In addition, a less exercised public will be less open to extreme measures aimed at drowning government in the bathtub. So the Republicans have to keep the economy struggling. Unemployment and high deficits provide their only shot at gaining power and dismantling the state. They must rail against both for the sake of their public credibility, but they have to know privately that forcing massive spending cuts in domestic budgets and entitlements has nothing to do with unemployment (except quite possibly making it worse) and even comparatively little to do with deficits.

It follows the pattern. Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz wanted a reason to invade Iraq. September 11 gave them one. Never, ever forget what Rumsfeld said on the very afternoon of 9-11 itself. They used a crisis to impose a belligerent foreign policy on a nation that initially did not want it. Now their legatees are doing the same thing with domestic politics. It’s how they roll, and the reason in both cases is simple: The agenda is so radical and at odds with American tradition and practice that they can’t possibly tell the truth about it.

Americans will have to learn this between now and Aug. 2 (when the debt ceiling must be raised). Will the Democrats teach them? Senator Chuck Schumer has started making the argument. Will his fellow Democrats, in their usual disorganized fashion, leave him out there to say it alone, thus ensuring that the theme gets no real traction? Will the president start making these arguments? The Republicans are already trying to make an “angry black man” out of him, on the basis of his only moderately aggressive performance in Wednesday’s news conference. What he needs is to get angrier—and to explain to the country what’s really happening.