Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Party of No, Never, Except Sometimes

In case you missed it this week, the House of Representatives put on a circus of shame, dysfunction, and bombast. The Democrats put forth a bill, called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2009, to pay for the health care of 9/11 first responders. Fearing criticisms that it would increase the deficit, they even put in a mechanism to pay for it, offsetting the cost by closing offshore loopholes for multinational corporations. Since both these should be slam dunks with the American people, they put in on the fast track, preventing anyone from adding amendments to the bill but requiring a two thirds majority to pass it. Some admitted they were afraid of poisoned pill amendments that would prevent them from voting for their own popular legislation. This begs the question: Were they naïve, cynical, or cowardly? Throughout the history of this congress, the Republicans have voted “no” in lock step on almost everything. Therefore, an argument could be made that the Democrats were naïve to think that this bill would be so popular some Republicans would cross the aisle to vote for it. Or maybe they were cynical, believing that they could score a political win by forcing Republicans to cross the aisle or be branded as heartless corporatists who put the tax status of wealthy corporations against the most obviously heroic patriots the country has to offer. Or maybe they were just cowards, so afraid of attack ads pillorying them for voting for or against the bill due to poisoned pill amendments that they couldn’t just bring it to a normal vote and pass it. Considering the Dems in Congress, I’m willing to believe all three about different representatives. They all seem to me to be starry-eyed optimists who keep foolishly expecting bi-partisanship, cynics who talk a good progressive game but keep voting for special interests, or cowards who are so afraid of courting controversy that they can’t even frame issues effectively and continuously cede the language of the debate to the Republicans. Shame be upon them all.

But I think the Republicans in Congress were worse. Some claimed they were voting against it because they were upset by the procedural maneuver that prevented them from putting amendments on the bill. As the bill was pretty straightforward, this is a pathetic excuse. Either they are for providing health care to 9/11 first responders and paying for it by closing a tax loophole on multinational corporations, or they oppose one of those things to such a degree that it outweighs their support for the other. I guess there is a third option. They could oppose both. If they truly support both these portions of the law, there is no need to amend it. It doesn’t need to be qualified to create loopholes in the closing of loopholes, or to have pork added by the party that claims to be for fiscal responsibility. The procedural argument is a canard, a hoax, a falsehood, a lie, a sham, complete and utter bull.

Now, some Republicans had the integrity to voice real concerns. It’s too bad that integrity wasn’t joined to real honor or compassion, because the concerns were shameful in their own ways.

Some were concerned that a fraction of the money might go to first responders who were illegal immigrants. That’s right, they are so hateful towards illegal immigrants that if someone chose to run into the burning World Trade Center to save their fellow human beings, or was willing to wade through the rubble of those two buildings looking for survivors, breathed in the toxic fumes, and is now coping with debilitating health complications as a result, but that person had overstayed their work visa, that was cause enough to prevent all the people who made the same sacrifices from receiving care.

Others stated boldly that closing the tax loophole for multinational corporations constitutes a tax, and they are so religiously anti-tax that they could not support it regardless of where the money would go. Now, you could argue that making a person pay a tax they’d fled is somehow a new tax, but that’s pretty weak. Making that weak argument at the expense of people who ran into burning buildings to save the lives of complete strangers… that’s the kind of principled heartlessness one normally only sees in Mafia movies. Its not personal, 9/11 heroes. It’s just business.

Regardless of their stated reasons, no matter how odious, you have to give the Republicans credit for one thing at least: their unity. 155 Republicans voted against the bill, with only twelve in favor. I guess you could say the Democrats were more unified, since 243 of them voted for it and only four against it, but it was their bill and the notion of caring for the 9/11 first responders is wildly popular. I’ve tried to find some data on just how partisan this Congress is compared to others (someone please post a link if you can find something objective), because I’m always skeptical of such claims. They remind me of claims that certain political races are particularly negative, ignoring the degree of mudslinging that has gone on historically. Sure, people perceive this to be a hyper-partisan Congress. Polling numbers on this are very strange. People claim to want bi-partisanship. But, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, voters find the Republicans to be slightly less partisan, and the number of self-identified Republicans outpaced the number self-identifying as Democrats (though both increased). But here’s what’s weird: 66% of people believe that the partisanship in Washington will increase over the next year. Now, unless those new Republicans all fall in the 13% who think it will become more cooperative, they are telling pollsters that they will vote for the party they find to be more bi-partisan, but that the country will be more partisan. Are they saying they expect their candidates to lose? Has “bi-partisan” simply become a way of saying you like a party, regardless of their voting history? Do they expect Republicans to take one or both houses of Congress and then butt heads against a lot of White House vetoes? That sounds very reasonable, but let’s remember that Americans have historically admired bi-partisanship and voted for gridlock.

Despite public perception, gridlock is not what we’ve achieved so far. As John Dickerson pointed out on the most recent Slate Political Gabfest, history will look back at this partisan Congress and realize how remarkably productive they’ve been. Yes, they’ve failed to produce meaningful energy legislation. Yes, they haven’t even touched immigration reform. But they did pass health care reform, and as much as I think the product was weak to the point of being pathetic, it was still a minor improvement and that’s more than any Congress or President could claim in a half a century. They also passed regulatory reform for Wall Street (again, weak legislation, but it was still a hard fight against a lot of Wall Street pressure), and the Economic Recovery Act (too small according to almost every reputable economist, but as big as they could get once Republicans rediscovered religion on the deficit). All this in the midst of The Great Recession (or the Bush Depression, or the Larry Summers Big Banks Free-for-All, take your pick), two inherited elective wars, and the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. They’ve done it by the thinnest of margins, but they’ve pulled off the legislative trifecta that Obama ran on. He’s done what he said he’d do. And, increasingly, people hate him for it, and hate the Congress that made it happen.

Now, maybe people are just simple. Maybe they just want unemployment to stay low and the economy to grow at a fast pace, and as long as it’s humming along they don’t care about anything else. But I have a feeling there’s more to it. Commentators have been debating, since the presidential election, whether or not this is a “center-right” nation, as many on the right kept saying over and over. The left would counter that a center-left politician was elected by popular vote (as well as by the wacky, vestigial electoral college), and that if you measured by certain bell weather issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) Americans actually favor the left side of the spectrum. The right would counter that on other issues (national defense, tax policy) America is on the right. But when I look at the vote in Congress this last week on the Zadroga Act, I wonder if it’s not more complicated than that. Sure, we could debate which issues are most important, and how many should be considered to sum up the national political preference, but I expect we’d still get the wrong answer, because my theory is that the country shifts, and shifts pretty wildly, depending on who is in power. Here’s why: The Republicans, and Conservatism in general, makes for a better opposition party, but a terrible party in power. The Democrats, as weak-kneed half-Progressives, make a terrible opposition party. They are actually the better party in power, but always fail to meet expectations and do a pathetic job of arguing for themselves, especially in the face of strong opposition. Add to this recipe Americans remarkably short memories, and you create a kind of jello that wobbles back and forth along the political spectrum during each election cycle.

Why are the Dems a better governing party? Let’s look at their accomplishments. In the last century, the wars we won (WWI and WWII, Kosovo) were all started by Democrats. So was Vietnam. Quagmires are losses. Dems 3 and 1. Republicans have one clear victory in Grenada, arguably a tie in Korea, and a seeming win in Kuwait that turned out to be a loss in that it left Saddam Hussein in power and led to another quagmire. That’s Repubs 1-1-1 if you don’t count two quagmires in this century and illegal wars in Chile, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iran, etc. etc. Now, the Repubs may claim the Cold War, but if Reagan’s deficit spending the enemy into bankruptcy gets him credit over Truman then that’s not the kind of victory any fiscal conservative wants on his record.

Now let’s look at domestic programs. The Dems have the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, The Great Society, and Desegregation. Republicans will remind you that desegregation was largely a battle with southern Democrats, and that’s true, but those Dixiecrats left the party and were welcomed with open arms into the Republican party, and I’m sorry to say that racists are like vampires; if you welcome them into your home you get what’s coming to you. Republicans will also remind you that they have Lincoln on their ledger, and that’s true, but he was in every way a Progressive, and is still hated by many conservatives, so, though Dems can’t claim him on their scoreboard, conservatives can’t have their stovepipe hat cake and eat it too. Similarly, Nixon gave us the EPA, though I’m not sure conservatives want credit for that. Teddy Roosevelt gave us the National Parks, but he left the Republican Party to start the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, which would certainly prevent him from passing the modern litmus test for conservatism. Gingrich and Clinton both should get credit for welfare reform in the nineties, but then they should both get credit for the millions wasted on the Lewinskygate scandal, so that’s something of a wash for both parties. Now, maybe I’m forgetting the wonderful domestic accomplishments of conservatives. Please remind me in the comments section below. But I know I’m being inherently unfair, because conservatism doesn’t measure its success in new programs. Conservatives say “No!” It’s just that Americans like new programs, new services, new benefits. By and large, we want a safety net. In that way, we are center-left, if not outright left as a country.

We just don’t want to pay for programs/services/benefits. In that way we’re center-right if not far right. And this is why the conservative position appeals right up until it doesn’t. William F. Buckley Jr., the father of modern conservatism, most perfectly described what conservatism should be, and what it is whenever the conservatives are out of power. “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'” I not only love the poetic beauty of this quote, but even as a liberal I can respect the need for this position in our political system. Progressives, no matter how hard they try to be fiscally and morally responsible, can only produce social change through the political system by producing new government services. These cost money, and even if they are fully paid for by cutting in other areas, they do so by cutting out ineffective but unobtrusive services in favor of ones that will more firmly entrench the power of government into the lives of citizens. We do need progressives to keep government relevant, and to force it to meet the needs (and selfish desires) we ask of it. But without conservatives, government will inevitably encroach on our money and our freedom.

This need for balance causes various types of dysfunction. Government doesn’t work when we need change but have conservatives in power. It also doesn’t work when we are changing too much, need someone to cry, “Stop!”, but have progressives in power. But these two scenarios aren’t the reason for America's vacillation between the sides of the political spectrum. If they were, America could remain centrist and the parties would dance around at the middle as the circumstance changed. Unfortunately, our political system doesn’t allow conservatives to remain conservative. Crying, “Stop!” in unison is a great strategy for an opposition party. They remain unified, somewhat ideologically pure, and can present themselves to the electorate as the stronger, more principled party. Progressives, who innately want to get something done, have a very hard time saying no to everything. It’s just not in our make-up. But we can’t agree on what kinds of change we want, so we often find ourselves forming circular firing squads (or, in D.C. parlance, “going off-message”). But the party of “Stop!” can’t remain so once they are in power if they want to hold on to that power. If the Dubya years aren’t enough evidence of that, we can go back further. During the reign of Bush I, that president not only increased taxes (fiscally responsible, but not fiscally conservative), but started an elective war and waffled on NAFTA. Reagan ran up a huge deficit, and only set the top marginal tax rate lower than Obama’s proposed 39.6 during his last 13 months in office. And that was an anomaly for Republican presidents. Low top marginal tax rates are the exception for Republican presidents, not the norm:

Taft: (1909-1913)--income tax began in 1913 at 7% for top rate
Harding: (1921-1923): 56%-73%
Coolidge (1923-1929): 24%-56%
Hoover (1929-1933): 24%-63% (63% after Roosevelt took power)
Eisenhower (1953-1961): 91-92%
Nixon (1969-1974): 70-77%
Ford: (1974-1977): 70%
Reagan (1981-1989): 28%-69.13%
Bush I: (1989-1993): 28%-39.6% (39.6% after Clinton took power)
(source: Tax Policy Center)

Republicans generally exceed Democrats in their appropriations of pork for their districts. And why? Because voters love pork. According to a PEW research poll conducted in July and August of this year, a Rep. who brings lots of pork back to a district gains a greater advantage than considerations like his/her association with Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, his/her support from the Tea Party, or his/her independence from the Republican or Democratic Party. Cry “Stop!” at History all you want, but it won’t get you re-elected. Tell your constituents that you brought home the bacon, and they’re your biggest fans.

In fact, when examining our history since the rise of modern conservatism, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen true conservatism as a ruling philosophy. What, exactly, would “Stop!” look like? Would the government shrink in size and power? That hasn’t happened. Would personal freedoms increase in relation to federal authority? During the Bush II years, the government was simultaneously trying to encroach on people’s right to marry, their right to protest (remember “Free Speech Zones”), their right to habeas corpus, their right to privacy (the “Total Information Awareness” program) and on and on. I know it’s not fair to evaluate conservatism by the government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina, but if the conservatives could point to a history of limiting the government in areas beyond tax policy, how would that response have been different? If Ron Paul had been president, rather than Dubya, and he’d spent the run up to Katrina abolishing FEMA along with the Department of Education and the IRS, there might have been more resources (no Iraq War or Department of Homeland Security, remember) but would that have translated into an active and effective response by a Paul Administration? Or would they have put that responsibility on states? Or on individuals to take “personal responsibility” and “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”?

Perhaps I’m blind to a similar kind of incongruity on the left. To me, FDR’s administration seems pretty consistently progressive. Johnson’s legacy was betrayed by his own folly in Vietnam, but his Great Society was unarguably progressive. And, as much as I’ve been disappointed by the emphasis in privatization in the latest health care reform, the tepid nature of Wall Street reform, and allocation of TARP funds to “too big to fail” banks rather than a massive investment in high speed rail and renewable energy technologies, I have to admit that the Obama administration has been predictably center-left. How have progressives failed to be truly progressive when in office? Do their failures constitute the same kind of disconnect between their ideology and their outcomes?

If not, this isn’t a simple case of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The case of the Zadroga Act might illustrates the weakness of the Democratic Party, but it points to something more fundamentally flawed about the Republican Party. It’s a case of a party that grinds the nation to a halt when it’s at its best, but, when it’s rewarded for it by the voters, it drives it into the ground.


Neil said...

Truman was President at the onset of the Korean War.


Neil said...

You could make a strong argument that Bush 1's tax plan was very fiscally conservative since his aim was to lower the deficit. Fiscal conservatives used to believe in things like that.

Neil (again)

PS. Since Eisenhower was President at the end of major fighting in Korea.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Right you are. I guess that could make the record 3-1-1 vs 1-1, but really, it's a flippant point, because, just as conservatives wouldn't assess their record with programs, those of us progressives who are doves wouldn't really measure their success in wars. I'm of the personal belief that every war is a loss for both sides; one side might just lose more than the other. Or, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you have to fight, you've already lost.

I personally think Bush I's raising of the top marginal tax rate was fiscally responsible. But if Grover Nordquist is going to be the tax policy guru of whom all Republicans live in fear, that kind of fiscal conservatism is not the kind the modern Republican Party is willing to embrace.

I suppose, throughout the piece, I should have drawn a distinction between conservatism in general and the kind the Republican Party has chosen, and progressivism in general and the kind the Democratic Party has chosen. There are conservatives who are not in line with the Republican type and progressives who are not in line with the Democratic type. I think and interesting extension would be; if we accept the theory that Republican conservatism is not a functional ruling philosophy, is there a kind of conservatism that could maintain both power and ideological consistency? Your take?

Benjamin Gorman said...

As soon as I hit send I caught the semicolon that should have been a colon.

Also, I wish Democrats could claim Eisenhower. I'm a fan of anyone who had the where-with-all to warn us about danger of the military-industrial complex.

Abdul said...

That was a very well written article.

But I'd hardly call so-called "Welfare Reform" a positive, or a reform.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Thanks! Yeah, I was trying hard to think of some program conservatives might point to as a legislative victory. It's not one I would claim with any pride, but then I know the "Cadillac welfare queen" was a myth, so it was a "solution" to a problem that didn't really exist. Real conservatives wouldn't need me to try to balance the piece by throwing them bone by naming a victory like that, because they don't call new programs victories. I can't think of Big Government programs they've successfully killed, though. They might cite getting Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas on the Supreme Court as a series of victories, despite all their railing against "activist judges". After all, judges aren't "activist" if they are activist in a way you like, right?