Unless things change dramatically in the next few days, the Republican party will take this country into default on its obligations for the first time in history. The fanatical freshmen members of the House, elected in the depth of the recession in 2010, are in no mood to compromise in any way, even with their own leadership. Clearly, these men and women do not understand the gravity of what they are doing; they openly prefer default to raising the debt ceiling, as though raising the debt ceiling means spending more money. It doesn’t; it simply means that the U.S. can borrow enough money to pay the bills it has already run up. Failure to do so will have catastrophic results on the U.S. economy. But the extreme right wing of the Republican party no longer believes that this country should continue to do business as usual, even if that business has made us the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. And there are certainly those in the GOP camp who see this as a golden opportunity to destroy any chance that Obama will be reelected. If the economy tanks, he certainly will lose, never mind the inestimable harm that will result from a national default.
Anyone other than us pundits watch the debate among the presidential wannabees on the Republican side the other day? Of course, they all ganged up on Obama, who, if the folks on stage are to be believed, is single-handedly responsible for all bad things that ever happened, are happening, or will happen in the United States. Hs is probably the anti-Christ, if not Satan himself. They all agreed on that. They also all agreed that cutting more taxes for the rich will miraculously cure the economy, that health care for all is a terrible idea, and that the deficit is really,really big. The only thing they didn’t agree on was which one of them was the most conservative. It’s a miracle the stage didn’t tip over, given how furiously they all fought to occupy the farthest right place on the platform. Yes, I’m biased, but I didn’t see anything there that ought to make Mr. Obama lose any sleep. I certainly had trouble staying awake for the duration of the debate. If this group is the best the GOP has to offer, they might as well swear Obama in for a second term now.
The economy continues to lurch along, gaining a little bit of steam, then falling back again. Unemployment stays stubbornly around 9%, homes are still being foreclosed at a ferocious rate, and the housing industry remains in a deep funk, Meanwhile, official Washington is consumed with the debate over the debt ceiling. Will someone please explain to me how cutting long-term spending (something I agree we need to do sometime soon) is going to jump-start the economy so that it can create the jobs needed to pull us out of this trough? Several of the conservative friends I’ve asked this question insist that solving the deficit now will give businesses the market certainty they need to start hiring again. Even if they’re right, his seems like awfully week tea, given the depth of the problem. These are the same folks who recite the mantra that cutting taxes always produces economic growth and reduce the deficit (See effect of Bush tax cuts). They are, of course, also the people who claim that the stimulus did nothing at all (See auto sales, GM. See also, state budget cuts after the stimulus money was exhausted). If anyone can tell me when an austerity budget ever pulled us out of a recession, I’d be willing to listen. I can’t think of one. I do know that the rush to cut the deficit during the Great Depression helped lengthen it by a decade.
What annoys me the most in all of this is that Democrats lack the courage to lay out an ambitious plan for jobs and economic growth based on the principles that they know work. Instead, they negotiate with deficit hawks and tax-cut absolutists whose ideas have been repudiated again and again by history, but who cling to the same tired theories no matter the evidence. As a result, Congress and the president play Russian roulette with the debt ceiling at a time when we should be focused on creating jobs, and the Great Recession lingers on and on.
The game of chicken over raising the debt limit continues, with Republicans (and some Democrats) vowing that any vote for it will have to be accompanied by deep budget cuts, and tax increases of any kind will not be considered. If Republicans have their way, there’s only one possible outcome. The social safety net, already badly frayed by the deep recession, will have to be trimmed even further. There’s simply no way to make the deep cuts the GOP is demanding without attacking Medicare and Medicaid, health care programs for the elderly and the poor. Much of the pain could be alleviated, of course, by repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, but Republicans will not hear of it. They stubbornly cling to the fiction that any tax increases (even repealing the oil depletion allowance for oil companies swimming in record profits) will deepen the recession and cost jobs. The inescapable truth, though, is that the most vulnerable among us are being asked to underwrite the increasing income inequality in America, which is already at the shameful levels seen in the Third World. This is all neatly packaged as absolutely necessary deficit reduction, but if the Grand Old Party was really serious it might ask those who can afford it the most to share a little of the pain.
The post-2010 Obama style is emerging. Out is the optimistic liberal standard bearer. In is the Clintonian triangler. Let the Republicans frame the agenda, stay above the fray, expend as little political capital as possible, then step in as the mediator to forge a last-minute consensus. Hey, it worked brilliantly for Clinton, and it might just get Obama reelected.
Clinton had the benefit of a booming economy and didn’t have to give up much. As we saw from the last two of Obama’s “successes,” the price was giving up on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and this time around, surrendering a significant portion of environmental protection, family planning, renewable energy funding, community health care, and other essential services.
Now Obama wants to enter discussions about the long-term deficit. House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan has already put his much-ballyhooed plan forward, and it’s a disaster. It cuts trillions from the Medicare and Medicaid budgets while staying “revenue neutral.” Translation, big cuts for those who rely on those programs for their health care in the coming decades, the promises made to retirees and the poor broken in the name of fiscal responsibility, and more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If Obama plays the game of meeting this plan halfway, of surrendering a little less than Ryan envisions in order to get a deal, we will all be the losers. The safety net will be irretrievably shredded, and the ruinous trend toward even greater income inequality will be accelerated even further, with the wealthy taking even more, the middle class losing more ground, and the poor totally forgotten.
Does Obama have any plan for resetting the agenda more in line with the progressive core values he articulated in his campaign for the presidency, or will his recent pragmatism, at a cost too high to contemplate, win out in the end? I’m afraid to look.
I couldn’t resist this one. In the Arab world and wherever else there’s a popular revolt against autocratic rule, it’s the dictator who ultimately flees. Not so in this country, evidently. In Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed outrageously punitive restrictions of collective bargaining rights for select public unions, sparking massive demonstrations, it’s the Democratic supporters of the unions who have fled to avoid a vote on the measures.
What Walker has proposed will certainly pass the GOP-controlled legislature when the Dems return. It’s a union-busting package, pure and simple, having nothing whatever to do with balancing the budget. In fact, the unions have already agreed to the proposed salary and pension cuts, but this is driven not by budget necessity, but by the reflexive Republican hatred of unions. It would be a little easier to swallow if the pain were spread equally, but the bill unfairly selects only those public unions that have traditionally supported Democrats and spares those that have not. Teachers get the axe, but Republican-leaning police and fire unions are spared. So much for sharing the burden.
Worse, this is a trial run for Republican governors in other states who are salivating at the chance to decimate their own public unions. After a few more years of this kind of authoritarian rule, will Americans rise up and throw the bums out? One can only hope. In the meantime, the wrong people are being forced to flee.
As you would expect at a time of crisis, liberals and conservatives have banded together in a rare show of unity to deflect blame and take no absolutely personal responsibility for what happened in Tucson. Liberals (myself included) were quick to point the finger at the heated anti-governement rhetoric of conservatives, and conservatives were just as quick to accuse liberals of politicizing the tragedy while blaming the event solely on the actions of a disturbed individual. Nobody seems willing or even capable of the tiniest bit of self-reflection. Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow, among others, jumped on the theme that the violent rhetoric of the past few years might be at fault. Fox News was equally quick to denounce them both and heatedly deny any responsibility. The morning drive in Tucson was filled with denials from local conservative talk show hosts. Rush Limbaugh claimed that trying to connect the shooting with his own and others’ inflamed rhetoric was simply Dermocratic strategy. He went on to say that he had a duty to criticize those who “put the fate of our country in peril,” meaning, of course, those dangerous liberals (one fewer of whom will be voting any time soon). In Washington, congressional leaders did promise to try to tone down the rhetoric and reach for a more civil debate, but how long that can last in the current environment is anybody’s guess. Mine is, not long.
I probably shouldn’t draw cartoons I dream up in the middle of the night. I tried for days to come up with a New Year cartoon, without success. Last night at 3 am, this came to me. I’m not entirely sure it works, but deadlines do have a way of making cartoon ideas look better the closer they get. I just like the image of the GOP elephant wielding the scythe as Father Time departs the scene.
The emboldened Republicans come into 2011 with an agenda to undo most of Obama’s accomplishments. Right behind Obamacare on the hit list is the Dadd-Frank financial reform package. It’s not nearly as strong or comprehensive as I’d have liked, but it’s more than the GOP and its Wall Street puppetmasters want. In the fantasy world of the Republican party, government is the only reason anything ever goes wrong, and the private sector, if the busybodies in Washington would just leave it the heck alone, will solve all problems. So the economic meltdown had nothing whatever to do with greed on Wall Street or banks creating trillions of dollars in complex derivatives backed by pixie dust, and we don’t need anyone looking over their shoulders to make sure they don’t do it again.
Now that they’ve preserved the tax cuts for the rich, the rest of us will need to pay for it somehow, which means “fixing” Social Security–a euphemism for cutting benefits. The next time you hear the term “redistribution of wealth,” think about the social safety net being plundered for the benefit of the wealthiest citizens.
Yesterday’s midterm election was nothing short of a catastrophe for the Democratic party. The combination of the worst economy since the Great Depression, a jobless rate stuck at 10%, a president and a majority party unable to make a coherent case for their agenda or to articulate their vision, and the surprising uprising of the Tea Party movement, conspired to deliver an unprecedented spanking at the polls.
To read this as an endorsement of the Republican party and its agenda, however, would be a huge mistake. This was the party that only two years ago received a similar rebuke. Let’s look back two years. Obama came in on a wave of optimism, promising Change, change in the way Washington works, certainly, but most important, change from what so many Americans saw as a slow, inexorable American decline. The expectations were enormous, and probably impossible to achieve, at least in the short term, especially given the dire state of the economy. Obama made a series of mistakes early on, misunderstanding the nature and scope of his mandate. He spent far too much time reaching out to an embittered Republican party, searching for compromises where none were possible. He appointed Wall Street insiders to head his economic team. He refused to pursue criminal prosecutions for Bush officials who created the torture policies that harmed this country so badly in the international arena. He failed to close Guantanamo, failed to make a clear distinction between his policies and those of the Bush administration in prosecuting the war on terror. And, in retrospect, he spent far too much capital on health care while ignoring jobs. Worst of all, he failed to make a forceful case for his agenda, failed to articulate his vision clearly and consistently, failed to rouse the American people in the pursuit of grand goals. He settled for half a loaf with the stimulus, extended TARP without restrictions on bonuses for bankers, and backed down repeatedly under the threat of filibusters instead of calling the Republicans out every time they blocked necessary legislation. The result was a massive defection from his base on the left, a dispirited disengagement from the independent middle, and an uprising from the right.
None of this should be read as a new electoral love for the Republican party. The GOP was perfectly happy to take the votes of dissatisfied voters without having to articulate a vision of its own. They sang the same old song of smaller government and lower taxes. Oh, and we’ll create jobs. Now that they have control of the House, we’ll see how that translates. It’s easy to say you’ll cut government, but government is the nation’s largest employer. Do you eliminate jobs there? How will you get the private sector to start hiring? Where will you cut? The proposals made so far result in modest savings of a few hundred billion dollars. Extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans adds some $700 billion to the deficit. Then there’s military spending, Social Security and Medicare, which make up the vast bulk of the budget. Do you make serious cuts in any of those? How will you work with a still-Democratic Senate and President to turn the economy around and solve our many other problems?
House Speaker-to-be John Boehner was hardly encouraging in his speech victory speech last night. He essentially invited Obama to kneel at his feet and throw out his agenda. Other Republicans say they’ll continue the so far successful strategy of fighting anything Obama tries to do. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell claims that his agenda for the next two years is to defeat Obama in 2012. In a disturbing echo of the Republican over-reach of the Clinton years, others talk of starting a round of investigations of the current administration or of impeaching Obama.Does any of this sound like a way to move this nation out of the mess it’s in? As we fall farther and farther behind in creating a renewable energy economy, in rebuilding our deteriorating infrastructure, in rebuilding an economy on principles that will sustain it in this century, do we really want another two years of partisan gridlock? Is that what the voters said when they threw the gauntlet down?
Rather, I believe that the last two election cycles were a repudiation of both parties and of the way business gets done (or doesn’t) in Washington. We have a two party system, and when we throw one out, we have no choice but to put the other one in. Obama and the Democrats may well have been badly out of touch with the electorate, but I hardly think the Republican party, based on what I’m hearing from its leaders, can make a greater claim to the hearts and minds of the American people, or to understanding the real meaning of this election. It’s ironic that John Boehner, of all people, the man who describes himself as “cozy with lobbyists,” the man who once distributed checks from the tobacco lobby on the House floor, is the new face of the voters’ revulsion with Washington. We’ll see where he leads.
I’m not optimistic.