100 Years of Right (And Left) Moves

The sign-up deadline for the Affordable Care Act has arrived, and in looking back at the last century of presidential power actions on both party sides Robert Shrum has reached a bigger conclusion: the progressive truly trump the conservative.

03.31.14 3:00 AM ET

The sign-up deadline for the Affordable Care Act has triggered a predictable series of jeremiads from the right. Perhaps the most remarkable appeared (no surprise) on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with Daniel Henninger’s portentous, supposedly comprehensive indictment: “The political left can win elections, but it’s unable to govern.” Henninger’s ambition here vastly exceeds his actual argument.

He assails health reform with a politically shopworn cliche about a “one grand scheme fits all compulsion… out of sync with individualization” in this age of technology. That glosses with modernity the 19th century laissez fair case against economic and social justice. It also happens to be outright false. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times, ”… six months after its troubled online exchanges opened  for business, the program… looks less like a sweeping federal overhaul than a collection of individual ventures playing out unevenly, state to state, in the laboratories of democracy.” Part of this is a reflection of the shameful fact that in 19 states, ideological, tea-drenched governors and legislatures have denied

Medicaid coverage to millions. But part of it is intended: Everyone else has a choice of plans on exchanges that span the private marketplace. The only thing you can’t choose is nothing—or else you pay a fine.

Henninger shies away from the obvious, justified censure about the program’s botched rollout, perhaps because things are now “actually going well": the percentage of uninsured Americans is declining, over 3 million Americans under the age of 26 are on their parents’ policies, and millions of individuals, 6 million and counting, are choosing policies through national and state exchanges. Simply put, the website works—and it appears Obamacare does—and will—too. (Some Democrats duck the phrase Obamacare given the President’s current ratings; I suppose that decades from now, Republicans who will be forced to pledge themselves to the law will call it something else.)

A comprehensive indictment demands more than one dubious proof point. Thus Henninger demonstrates the left’s failure of governance by pointing to inaction on climate change. He spends the bulk of his column there. He fails to note that the inaction is a product of gridlock created and maintained by the adamant opposition of anti-science, deluded or willfully ignorant GOP leaders and their special interest paymasters. This is no failure of progressive government; it is a classic instance of the bank robber blaming the bank for running short of cash.

The column throws in a grab bag of other “evidence.” Look, for example, at New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s opposition to charter schools in favor of an “antique public school system.” Conservatives may treasure charter schools, and I believe they do have their place. But when did they become the litmus test of competence in office?

That’s about all Henninger has: a few non-credible bits and pieces—he even drags in French President Francois Hollande—to sustain an over-arching critique of “the left.” And by that he plainly means Democrats. (He specifically targets Al Gore, John Kerry, and of course Barack Obama, the party’s last three presidential nominees.) At the same time, perhaps inadvertently and unfortunately for the right, the column does raise an important question: Who’s better at running government, conservatives who disdain or even hate government, or progressives who view it, in FDR’s phrase, as an instrument of “leadership which aims at a larger good”?

More than a century ago, the conservative ideology of public indifference and deference to market forces had no answers to the fundamental challenges of the industrial age. It was a Republican President—a progressive Republican—Theodore Roosevelt, who deployed antitrust laws to break up monopolies and pushed through a regulatory regime to safeguard against tainted food and drugs. He protected coal miners on strike—and cracked down on price—gouging railroads. He was soon followed by another progressive, the Democrat Woodrow Wilson; his governance included the creation of the Federal Reserve Board, the first ever to help struggling farmers, and the imposition of the eight hour day in the then dominant railway industry. He also won passage of a ban on child labor, struck down by a Scalia-like like Supreme Court in 1918.

The roaring ’20s saw the return of a tax-cutting, anti-regulatory conservatism, which held that the principal domestic business of the federal government was not to govern, but to stand aside. When the Great Depression then devastated the economy, Franklin Roosevelt discarded the dogma of inaction and reshaped American society with measures ranging from Social Security and the minimum wage to federal insurance for bank deposits. He was effective at governing because he valued results over theory and organization charts. When conservatives complained that the New Deal’s relief initiatives to put the unemployed back to work were overlapping and inefficient; that the economy would correct itself over the long run, FDR’s acerbic aide Harry Hopkins replied: “People don’t eat in the long run.”

That is effective government. So was the G.I. Bill of 1944, which educated the greatest generation and laid the foundations of post-war prosperity. And so was Harry Truman’s executive order integrating the Armed Forces. His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was a self-styled “modern Republican” who refused to repudiate the New Deal and, simultaneously, a throwback who believed in austerity economics, which resulted in three recessions in the 1950s. The third one, in 1960, probably led to John F. Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon.

The evidence for liberal over conservative governance has mounted with each passing decade. The New Frontier and the Great Society gave the nation the Peace Corps, Medicare, and yes, the War on Poverty, which, contrary to right wing propaganda was a success that reduced poverty by “a staggering 43 percent. In six years.”

When he finally became president, Nixon walked away from that war to prolong a futile one half a world away. In that sense, he was a conservative, or neo-con. To the extent he governed capably at home, he was also the original triangulator. To counter potential rivals like Edmund Muskie, George McGovern, and Ted Kennedy, he agreed to historic new environmental standards and agencies and a massive expansion of food stamps. With Kennedy, he also came close to forging a decidedly more liberal health care bill than Obamacare.

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Even the conservative hero Ronald Reagan governed best when he negotiated with Kennedy on immigration reform—and with House Speaker Tip O’Neill on a plan to save Social Security. Today he would be exiled from his own party as a RINO (a Republican In Name Only.) And he governed worst when he was inattentive and disengaged; when he wasn’t governing at all, but letting rightwing staff govern in his name. Thus, the shameful, bigoted neglect of HIV/AIDS for most of his term at an uncountable cost in human life.

His successor, the first George Bush was at a loss about how to respond to the economic doldrums of the early 1990s. He was tongue-tied when asked about it in a debate with Bill Clinton, who as president would take the crucial, final steps to close the deficits that Reagan had decried but multiplied. Republicans like Newt Gingrich have claimed credit for the almost unbelievable achievement of a balanced budget. In fact, Gingrich and House Republicans unanimously opposed the 1993 Clinton economic package that made a balanced budget possible, and the GOP unsuccessfully proposed tax cuts for the wealthy that would have made it impossible. That’s what I call being “unable to govern.”

The contrast is stark and the case conclusive when you examine the records of the second Bush and Barack Obama. Obama’s stimulus prevented Bush’s Great Recession from descending into a second Great Depression. Bush de-regulated; Obama’s Wall Street reform will mitigate future excesses and lessen the risks of financial collapse. Even by the standard of fiscal responsibility, Obama has governed far better: by 2013, Bush’s policies had added $5 trillion to the national debt; Obama’s had added $1 trillion—much of it to redress the economic crisis he inherited from his predecessor. So the largest share of the debt increase is due to Bush even in the years since he’s been gone; and last year, “the federal deficit fell more sharply than in any year since the end of World War II.”

Then there is the Affordable Care Act, the culmination of a 100-year struggle and the object of relentless Republican calumny; it will, in later days, be known as a proud expression of a purposeful public sector. Beyond this, who governed effectively: the conservative Bush with his flyover during Hurricane Katrina or Obama on “the left” during Hurricane Sandy? This President ended a war in Iraq which Bush and the neo- cons conned the country into—and where they conned themselves into the Rumsfeldian fairy tale that the conflict would be a “cakewalk.” And Obama made the toughest kind of governing decision to get Osama bin Laden; Bush never did, and at one point dismissed the idea of capturing bin Laden because he was “marginalized…I really don’t spend that much time on him.”

Finally, the gauge of governance is not just a balance sheet, but the balance of justice and the mission of advancing America’s ideals. There were Republicans, some of them traditional conservatives, who in the 1960s fought or voted for civil rights; but the party soon turned to a Southern Strategy in order to exploit seething resentment about the direction in which JFK and LBJ had led the nation. Today’s GOP is intent on undoing voting rights. Last year, House Republicans had to be bludgeoned into renewing the Violence Against Women Act. They’re hostile to reproductive rights and equal pay. And in terms of equality for LGBT Americans, the defining frontier of civil rights in our time, conservatives, with few exceptions, are defenders of discrimination. This is not governance in any meaningful sense at all; it is lowest form of base politics.

Henninger, the Koch brothers, and their fellow travelers on the right slander progressives, their capacity to govern, and government itself to concoct a rationalization for repealing the progress of the last century—and reverting to the rugged individualism of the robber baron era. Their argument is mostly assertion devoid of historical insight or analysis. No wonder Henninger conspicuously omits comparison of past or present conservative performance as he maligns and caricatures “the left.” He dare not mention the congressional Republicans of today, who are the latest reincarnation of “hear nothing, see nothing, do-nothing government.”

In terms of the capacity to govern, to quote George W. Bush, conservatives do “a heck of a job”—and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Progressives do pretty damn well, and we live in a transformed, more decent and greater America because of what they have achieved.