Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Lessons Learned?

The immediate post-election analysis is predictably filled with conservative commentators trying to paint the Democrats into the "too liberal" corner, and liberal commentators fighting over whether the Democrats need to move left or right. All of this betrays a basic flaw in our entire approach to defining "liberalism" or "conservatism": we leave no room for anyone to pick and choose their issues. If you are "liberal", you have to buy the entire package, even if you don't agree with all of the components. Same with being "conservative". Both parties have taken a zero-tolerance approach to deviation from the party line, with the result that few rational people really have a place to go. No wonder polls suggest people are disgusted with both parties. Not everyone can articulate the reason for their disgust, but no doubt a big part of is is having to hold your nose no matter which way you vote.

To set the record straight, the Democrats (led by Obama) have hardly been liberal in their approach. They have made no progress on most of the social/cultural issues that define liberalism. Healthcare reform? A huge windfall for insurance companies. Even their failed initiatives hardly merit the label of "socialist" that is thrown at them. If anything, they have tried at every turn to bend over to compromise with the Republicans, to the point of appearing craven. The reason the Healthcare Bill is an atrocity is not that it is too liberal, but that it has no coherence. The authors dropped in various provisions at random, that they thought would secure some Republican votes (mandatory insurance was originally a Republican idea!), and it got them nothing.

That is one reason there is an enthusiasm gap between the parties. True progressives have nothing to show for their support of this party or this president. The sad thing is that no amount of accomodation would have sufficed to appease the far-right wing. To expect any compromise from them was naive, and perhaps the singular failure of this president. It resembles nothing so much as Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler just before the blitzkreig. Hillary Clinton was right to campaign on the worry that Obama would not have the steel to stand up to America's enemies. What she omitted to say was that the worst enemies would be here at home, in the form of a rabid mob that have seemingly taken over the GOP.

Let's make no mistake: that takeover is a tragedy for the country. The old-guard Republicans were advocates of fiscal probity, but they were also advocates of color-blindness. After all, their icon, Lincoln, led the way. The few that are left are subject to venomous attacks by the new right, for not being pure enough. The Tea Party crowd have announced their intention to get rid of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, for daring to work with Democrats. They already did it to Lincoln Chaffee, who has re-emerged in Rhode Island as an independent.

All of that notwithstanding, the Tea Party are right on one thing: Spending. Of course, the Republicans have always been budget hawks, or so they say. In practice, it turned out differently. We gave them the power to decide what to spend, and they broke the bank. The Tea Party may turn out to be equally hypocritical, but for now, at least, they are saying the right thing. The bailouts were wrong, at least in execution. The same crooks who robbed the country of much of its 200 years of accumulated wealth, took the bailout money and walked away with that too. It is unforgivable that this was allowed to happen. Unfortunately, the Tea Party vote has put in power a bunch of people who are owned by the same crooks. Boehner? Coates? Who are we kidding? These are not small-government folks at all, no matter what they say. They are crony-government types. Obama largely failed to guard the hen-house, but we have now handed the keys directly to the wolves.

Leaving aside the issue of corruption, however, there is still the fundamental issue of fiscal sanity. A big part of the electorate's anger stems from the feeling that neither major party has the integrity to address this issue. It is not a mere platitude to say "I have to balance my budget, why can't the government do the same?" Our children WILL have to pay the bill. Both parties have had an enormous opportunity, and wasted it.

Ironically, it is the Democrats who had the better opportunity to do it, not the Republicans. Just as Nixon went to China, the Democrats could have negotiated with their own constituency, where the Republicans seem bent on wholesale destruction. Safety nets are essential, but why do public employees now make more than private sector workers, get to retire earlier, and keep pensions up to 90% of their working wages? They won't compromise, so they may find themselves being eviscerated by the Republicans. Medicare is an enormous success, but Part D was an atrocity. The Democrats had a golden opportunity to make sure there were cost controls, and failed. Social Security should be updated and the payroll tax made progressive. As it is, it is regressive, and will soon be broke.

The reason the Democrats can't even comprehend these opportunities is that they have accepted someone else's label for them. They have willingly let themselves be defined as the party of Big Government. There was a time when tax revolts came from the Left. Now the Left campaigns for ever-increasing spirals of taxation and spending. Just as the Republicans are irresponsible in wanting to cut taxes without figuring out how to pay for things, the Democrats are irresponsible in voting for every spending measure without having the money to pay for it. Even that canny campaigner, Bill Clinton, gives speeches defending the role of government in our lives. When are they going to learn that this resonates like a lead balloon?

I have written before about this, of course to no avail, but here it is again: Liberals are right on 90% of the issues. Environment? Check. Women's rights? Check. Minority rights? Check. Wars of aggression? Check. Banking regulation? Check. Urban planning? Legalizing Pot? Funding schools? Domestic spying? Check, check, check. But we live in a fiscally conservative country. Note: I do not say we live in a conservative country, as the Wall Street Journal likes to claim. A FISCALLY conservative country. And rightly so.

If the Democrats were to embrace fiscal conservatism--if they had pinned the bailouts on the real perpetrators (Bush and Paulson) and refused to continue in that vein; if they had taken the lead on belt-tightening and, FDR-like, inspired people to accept some sacrifice for the long-term good; if they had spent a trillion dollars employing people to rebuild this country, rather than on the automobile companies and banks...it is they who would be looking at a generation-long majority.

As it is, the Republican victory is not just part of the political cycle. It is a tragedy for the world, for it means setbacks on global climate change, financial reform, and international relations. The Democrats are as much at fault, for accepting their label as big spenders, and forgetting all the other things they once stood for.

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