Historically there are two types of elections in this country, changes in speed or in direction. The election of Barack Obama is unquestionably of the latter and with it comes an inherent change toward a more progressive political climate. His inaugural address signaled the end of the era of Reagan as well as that of the Clintons as the driving force within the Democratic Party. But within this historical realignment there are daunting challenges facing both parties. A key challenge for the Democrats is to avoid falling back into the bad old habit of throwing money at social problems without adequate examination of those problems or insuring intelligent oversight so as to avoid fiscal waste. Likewise, there is the age-old temptation to create voter allegiance tied to steady streams of government largesse. Already the stimulus plan has more than a few questionable spending proposals that will do little to create economic activity but will certainly increase government spending. If these items have been included as bargaining chips that can be traded off for real simulative measures in the final legislation that is one thing, anything else is unacceptable. Democrats should not fool themselves into thinking that the failed Bush Administration will somehow, as if by magic, guarantee the party a free ride into the future. In crafting government programs designed to deal with the current economic downturn or which attempt to bring American social policy into the 21st Century, progressives need to be mindful of the future entitlement-funding crisis that is looming just over the horizon.
The ideologically exhausted Republicans face a far more complex set of challenges. While many will pay lip service to the values of small government, free markets and deregulation, there is the undeniable realization that large-scale government participation in the economy, in the near term, is a foregone conclusion both in public spending and financial regulation. Commenting on the proposed stimulus last week Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) said: “Democrats should break out pieces of the huge stimulus that both parties agree will work and quickly approve them. You could take the $30 billion for roads and bridges that is truly shovel ready and pass that this afternoon. Lets pick those pieces out, pass them right away, and then say, O.K., this is a down payment on the $800 billion.” It’s more than apparent that any Republican, especially one from Utah, who is accepting $800 billion in a stimulus program, is not in opposition to the concept of government involvement in the economy. The real debate across the aisle revolves around cutting taxes vice spending but most economists come down on the side of spending, as tax cuts, while quick to enact, don’t necessarily create immediate economic activity. Consider the Bush tax rebate of last summer, 80 percent of it went to pay down debt or into savings thereby creating little in the way of a spending stimulus. Building public works creates demand for construction materials, puts people to work who in turn spend and the end product is a public good that lasts for generations. On the other hand, outside of tax credits for equipment or facilities, businesses will not necessarily expand output due to receiving a tax break unless they see a demand for their goods or services. In the final analysis, Republicans on Capitol Hill have reverted in form to the role they played in the era before Ronald Reagan, that of advocating a better way to mange government as opposed to being the purveyors of policies that guide the country to the right. In commenting on the House version of the stimulus, Eric Cantor (R-VA) said:” We must reconcile the nation’s need for quick action with the need for prudent policies designed to spur sustainable job creation here in America.” That there is not much in the way of rhetoric about “government being the problem” or relying on the private sector to pull us out of the slump just goes to show you how much the Republicans have had to accept the paradigm shift that has taken place in the American political economy.
Outside the Beltway, on conservative talk radio and in the blogosphere, there is a growing chorus of opposition that centers on the inability to accept the fact that the Reagan Revolution is over and that many of its precepts may no longer be applicable. From Michelle Malkin’s recent article admonishing the GOP to work to undo anything progressive that Obama advocates to Dick Morris suggesting that Republicans insist on “free market measures” as part of any stimulus to the serial draft dodger Rush Limbaugh’s unpatriotic prattle that he hopes Obama fails, there is an element of political dead enders who just can’t accept the fact that things are changing in America. The President addressed this very situation in his inaugural address: “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
It is not insignificant that Republicans picked an African-American as the new face of the GOP. Implicit in this development is the fact that the idea put forth by Karl Rove that there could be a permanent Republican majority is a pipe dream and that the GOP must broaden its base to remain relevant. Moreover, an analysis of voting patterns in the last election showed that even in most Red States there was an increased trend toward voters who choose Democrats. Republicans only gained voters in a swath of the country beginning in Oklahoma and stretching in an arc across Appalachia, that part of America that is the least ethnically diverse, least educated and the most economically depressed. While many on the right admire Rush Limbaugh it is important to note that his following is but 14 million in a nation of 330 million people, roughly 4 percent of the population. Collectively this extreme element on the right further complicates the fortunes of those Republicans on Capitol Hill who know that outright obstructionism coupled with a dogmatic regurgitation of conservative principles will be a formula for failure in the next election cycle, baring an unlikely rapid return to economic prosperity. In the debate surrounding the stimulus, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addressed criticism from the right aimed at upending bi-partisan efforts in the Senate: “Anyone who belittles cooperation resigns him or herself to a state of permanent legislative gridlock and that is simply no longer acceptable to the American people.” Thus the Republicans are faced the dual challenges of a pressing need to reassess their core ideology while at the same time containing the self destructive zealots within the extreme right wing of the GOP and the wider conservative movement.
Steven J. Gulitti
February 1, 2009