The almost complete disconnect between the machinations of Washington, D. C. and what is actually happening in the United States at large has seldom been more apparent. Conservative Republicans, of course, claim that the Tea Party movement and the new Republican majority in the House will close that gap, but this is the reverse of the truth, because the Tea Party has even less of substance to offer than corporate-dominated establishment Republicans and Democrats. Today's Republican Party presents a remarkable paradox. It commands impressive financial resources and has a 24/7 profit-making propaganda machine with no parallel in history on Clear Channel and Fox News. It has determination, affect, emotional commitment, and a strong and identifiable ideology. But it has nothing positive to offer in the sphere of government. It now also has to deal with its revolutionary Tea Party minority, which is dreaming, yet again, of remaking Washington and returning the country to some pastoral paradox that actually never existed. As the lame duck session goes to work, it is becoming clear how they may use their new power.
Several stories in the last few days' papers illustrate this point and paint a frightening picture of what is to come in the next few months. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint have made it clear from early 2009 that their priority was Obama's defeat in 2012. To make it happen they practiced maximum obstructionism for two years, fought effective measures to deal with the recession, and rode economic distress to success in the recent elections. They have emphasized the deficit among all our ills but their first act is going to be to insist upon keeping the Bush tax cuts, which are responsible for a very large portion of it, in place. And because every Democratic political consultant seems to accept the idea that the Republicans have successfully defined the terms of the public debate, Barack Obama is not, apparently, going to try to stop them. The Constitution gives him the trump card: he could veto any extension of the tax cuts, or any extension that does not restore the Clinton-era rates on the highest bracket, thus bringing a great deal more money into the Treasury without hurting anyone who is currently unemployed. But he is not going to do so. Truly responsible action has been ruled out by thirty years of hysterical anti-tax propaganda. Instead, an excellent Washington Post story yesterday suggested that Obama's price will be more tax breaks for the working poor--a noble goal, surely, but one which will help make the deficit even bigger. Are we totally out of responsible politicians?
The same story had an interesting footnote introducing some subtlety into the McConnell-DeMint strategy, and heralding a Republican split. Every Republican Senator signed a letter the other day promising to stop consideration of any legislation (as Senate rules allow them to do) until both the extension of the tax cuts and an increase in the debt limit is passed. What slipped by was that they want to make the debt limit increase big enough to let the government keep operating until next October. McConnell is old enough to remember the government shutdown in the second half of Clinton's first term, which discredited Newt Gingrich and the Republicans badly, and he wants to stop militant Tea Party House Republicans from pulling the same trick. Today reports say the Administration wants to get a huge appropriations bill through as part of the price as well to tie the new Congress's hands until the fiscal 2012 budget has to be prepared. Curioser and curioser.
The Republicans are obviously in an uncompromising mood, and Barack Obama, as Paul Krugman rather angrily pointed out yesterday, seems to be in a yielding one. But the Republicans have nothing to offer--neither relief for the unemployed, which costs money they will not spend, nor real deficit reduction, which means cuts in programs upon which their older voters rely, or higher taxes to which they will never agree. Thus, as I suggested last week, a move towards a new "center"--one which half a century ago would have represented the right--still seems more likely than anything else. The President is also busy touting the war in Afghanistan, a trip which I have to admit reminds me of Johnson and Nixon's excursions to Vietnam.
Meanwhile, in the real America--the one the average population inhabits--things are getting worse once again. Unemployment rose last month by .2 per cent. The New York Times story on this reports that the public sector (which will now be starved more than ever) lost ground while private sector job growth was extremely modest. Corporate profits have been going up, but what the story does not explicitly say is that corporate profits now tend to correlate negatively, not positively, without growth--instead of pushing companies to hire more workers, they reflect shedding workers. The bulk of those hired have been temporaries, who do not receive benefits. This in turn suggests that we have already reached the point President Obama was warning us about when he introduced the health care reform bill: health care in the United States is too expensive for corporations to hire workers. That is why the only real cure was a public option, but it dropped out of the bill because it did not command the support of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, who for two years were the most powerful men in America. Another story, a brilliant piece of reporting by op-ed columnist Gail Collins, also relates to health care. In its rush to cut the budget, the Arizona legislature stripped certain transplants from Medicaid coverage, and now a laid-off 32-year old truck driver with four children named Francisco Felix has been denied a liver transplant he needs to survive because he does not have a $200,000 deposit. Senator John McCain's office declined to comment on the situation and Governor Jan Brewer, the scourge of illegal immigrants, refuses to take some federal stimulus money and put it into medicaid funding. It will be interesting to see if Collins' story has any results.
I have returned several times during the last year to the analogy between Weimar Germany, which became ungovernable in the midst of a depression, and the contemporary United States. The "conservative" Republican movement and the Tea Party, I have said again and again, are not really like the National Socialists--but in a sense, one could argue, that is actually unfortunate. Adolf Hitler had horrifying plans for the future which cost humanity tens of millions of lives, but in the short he realized that the depression had brought him into power and that he had to get the German people back to work. He did not undo the public works programs that previous governments had already begun--he expanded them massively, building the autobahns, and, of course, ramped up rearmament. The German economy had very serious problems throughout the 1930s, including shortages of food, but it was the only advanced economy in the world without unemployment. The Tea Party's policies are designed, in effect, to make our economic mess worse. Next week, I hope to discuss why the Democrats have failed so utterly not only to offer convincing policy alternatives, but also to connect with the American people.