Posted on Wednesday, February 4, 2009
For President Obama to treat individual Republicans with civility is one
thing. Etiquette, however, has its limits. Embracing bipartisanship as a
political goal can be a snare and a delusion.
It has certainly seemed so of late, as GOP congressmen responded to
Obama's friendly overtures by voting unanimously against his desperately
needed economic stimulus, persevering in their party's cultlike faith in
tax cuts and aligning themselves with a bombastic radio talker who brags
that he wants the president to fail.
In response, the mannerly official scorers at ABC's "The Note" awarded
the president "a goose egg in the first inning of bipartisanship,"
although the stimulus package passed in the House by a vote of 244-188.
Never mind that the White House had dropped a couple of spending
items-subsidized contraceptives and refurbishing the National Mall-that
Republicans disliked. Washington Post editors lamented that "Obama had
the controversial provisions removed, but too late to win over
Too late? The new administration was one week old. The changes preceded
the vote. Persons more concerned with substance than manners might
suspect that hopeful chatter about bipartisanship is a sucker's game.
How often did pundits urge President George W. Bush to be sensitive to
Democrats' delicate feelings? The Post's idea of centrism appears to be
the balance of opinion at a K Street lobbyists' cocktail party.
The last time we had a new Democratic president, essentially the same
thing happened. Republican congressmen voted against Bill Clinton's 1993
tax and budget proposals, uniformly predicting doom. Raising marginal
income tax rates a few points on the wealthy, they charged, would lead
to economic ruin. Instead, the exact opposite happened. Over the ensuing
eight years, the nation witnessed the creation of 25 million new jobs, a
balanced federal budget and steadily rising prosperity.
Today, an act of historical memory is required to recall that when Bush
took office in 2001, people actually worried about paying down the
national debt too fast. No problem. The new president embraced what it's
tempting to call Limbaughnomics, the absurd belief that tax cuts
invariably lead to greater government revenues and more and better jobs.
Instead, Bush presided over a sluggish economy, the worst record of job
creation since World War II, growing inequality and the current banking
crisis, a direct result of "free market" deregulatory fundamentalism
combined with a speculative real estate bubble that sustained the
illusion of prosperity until it burst. Oh, and yes, runaway budget
deficits, thanks mainly to the combination of Bush's tax cuts and the
war in Iraq.
In a recent interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, U.S. Rep.
Barney Frank, the rare Democrat who appears to relish spirited give and
take, correctly pointed out that "the largest spending bill in history
is going to turn out to be the war in Iraq. . . . And I don't understand
why, from some of my conservative friends, building a road, building a
school, helping somebody get health care, that's wasteful spending, but
that war in Iraq, which is going to cost us over $1 trillion before
we're through-yes, I wish we [wouldn't] have done that. We'd have been
in a lot better shape fiscally."
In short, the past 16 years couldn't have done more to expose the
wrongheadedness of the Republican "war on arithmetic" had it been a
laboratory experiment. GOP tax-cut theology is sheer superstition, on
the level with sacrificing goats and reading tea leaves. Meet
grandstanding GOP congressmen halfway? What for? Democrats swept the
2006 and 2008 congressional elections precisely because the public
finally gets it. Pretty much everybody except Rush Limbaugh's faithful
listeners has caught on.
That's how I understood Obama's dismissive reference to the AM radio
entertainer: Times are serious; Limbaugh's not. Needless to say, the
portly chatterbox made the best of it, remarking that Obama supporters
expect everybody to bend over and grab their ankles just because the
president had a black father. To which Jay Leno made the perfect
rejoinder: Rush grab his own ankles? That'll be the day.
Future debates with Limbaugh are probably best left to his fellow
comedians. Meanwhile, all the bipartisanship Obama needs appears to be
coming from Republican governors, who need all the revenue they can get
to cope with rising unemployment, Medicaid and education costs, but who
don't have the luxury of temporary deficit spending. With the economy
spiraling sickeningly downward, the last thing we need is thousands of
laid-off state employees.
Under the circumstances, with capital markets largely frozen, consumers
too fearful to spend and swollen inventories making businesses leery of
new investment, government spending on infrastructure and new technology
is pretty much the only useful tool left to get the economy moving
This isn't a tea party, it's the worst economic crisis since the 1930s,
and there's little to be gained worrying over the hurt feelings of GOP
true believers who caused it.
· -–––––·–––––-Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author
and recipient of the National Magazine Award.