Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two possibilities for 2011

It was last July 4 that I speculated for the first time that George W. Bush had been the crisis President of our era, that his Administration had shaped our domestic and foreign policies for some time to come, and that the United States was well launched into a new Gilded Age that would last for at least twenty years. That prediction, it seems to me, looks awfully good in light of the tax cut deal. Barack Obama has given up any ideas he ever entertained of leading a liberal resurgence and reviving the spirit of the New Deal. Mainstream commentators are now lauding him as a compromiser because he has pre-emptively given in to the new Republican Congressional minority. More alarmingly, he has agreed to an outrageous, completely unnecessary 2% cut in the social security payroll tax, whose genesis remains a complete mystery to me, but which will serve as an effective foot in the door for Republican efforts to gut the program. In foreign policy he remains committed to the war in Afghanistan. He may, before this weekend is out, have salvaged two victories: the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (see yesterday's post), and the ratification of the START Treaty with Russia. But in general, he seems to have stepped into the role of his fellow Nomad Dwight Eisenhower--the President from the weaker party of his era who enjoyed control of the Congress for only two years, and who rapidly abandoned any idea of reversing the changes inaugurated by the stronger party during the previous decade or more. Obama did, of course, pass one major reform, but I think the odds are about even now that the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional by a 5-4 vote within two years. He obviously hopes to ride this new horse into a second term in the White House, and he may well succeed.

There are, however, two threats to this picture of emerging consensus. Obama has nothing to fear from progressives like myself, who, especially where foreign policy is concerned, matter only in primaries. We have been decimated in Congress and are not restoring our ranks, and we have no large body of organized allies among the people. He does, however, have to deal with the militant, Tea Party Republican right, who are determined to seize the political initiative. More importantly, we still do not know if the country can survive in the state to which it has evolved, especially economically, over the last few decades--the state which he and his advisers have now accepted as the new normal.

The most interesting reading I did last week was this article in The New Yorker about Congressman John Boehner and the new Republican minority. The first half of the article, about Boehner himself, is the less interesting part, because he is not a very interesting man--he is almost a caricature in miniature of his fellow Ohioan (and fellow Prophet, generationally), George Babbitt, created more than 80 years ago by Sinclair Lewis. The more interesting parts come at the end, which turns to three of Boehner's leading lieutenants, all Gen Xers: Patrick McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor. (It's an interesting symptom of the changes in American political life that the House Republican leadership consists of three Catholics and a Jew; WASPS, except in the South, are more likely to be Democrats.) These men are true revolutionaries dedicated to gutting federal and state government. Ryan wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system allowing seniors to buy private insurance--a catastrophic idea that would kick in just as his own Generation X began to retire. They do not trust Boehner and intend to hold his feet to the conservative fire in months to come. It was for their benefit, I am sure, that Boehner explicitly rejected the word "compromise" in his interview with Leslie Stahl. Developments yesterday suggest that a government shutdown is only months away.

I mentioned a week or two ago that there seemed to be a split emerging between establishment Republicans in the Senate and the new House. When every Senate Republican sent a letter announcing that they would oppose any new legislation in the Senate until the Bush tax cuts were extended in toto, they added that they also would demand a new budget that would carry the federal government well into next year. That interesting proposal appeared to be a hedge against an early, Tea-Party led confrontation with the White House, reminiscent of the 1995 government shutdown from which Bill Clinton emerged the victor. The Senate Republicans, however, apparently lost their nerve. Yesterday they triumphantly blocked a budget bill that would have funded much of the government through the current fiscal year. The old Congress should of course have taken care of the budget months ago, but Republican obstructionism made that impossible. Now the Senate Republicans say the new House has to be heard from--and it will be. We will have to wait and see how far they want to go, and what kind of "compromise" Barack Obama will have to give in to to pass a budget. Given his performance this month, when he still had considerable bargaining power, I am not optimistic about where he might make a stand

Deficit cutting, an end to stimulus programs, and an end to serious regulatory projects will leave the economy more or less where it is. When unemployment benefits run out, as they almost surely will, misery will become more widespread. Meanwhile, Republicans at the state and local level, especially in red states, will be poushing a variety of anti-government and theocratic projects. Rick Scott in Florida is preparing a statewide school voucher plan, and the Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have already killed big high-speed rail projects in the midst of the worst unemployment since the Depression. That is the potentially fatal flaw in Republican plans: they will do nothing for the country, and very little for the deficit. The question is whether they can continue successfully to blame Obama and the Democrats for anything that goes wrong--and whether, as seems most unlikely, the Demcoratic Party can now reverse course and start building a genuine left-wing following.

"A special Providence," Bismarck once remarked, "looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America." Until now we have had enough friends on Olympus to avoid the worst, but our luck may have run out. I hate to say this, but a new bipartisan consensus that turns its back on government intervention to create jobs and continues to feed our leading corporate beasts may actually be the best alternative we can hope for for the time being. I really have no idea where further economic decline and budgetary chaos might lead us. Our political class, however, seems as feckless, money-beholden and irresponsible as it did in the decades after the Civil War. Liberals will rejoice if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed today, and that would remove an important obstacle to full participation in American life. Alas, the opening of opportunity to women, minorities and gays has been accompanied by an increase in economic inequality, a steady collapse of government services, and the rise of new and very powerful institutions who do little or nothing for the public at large. Eventually I shall be exploring the question of whether those changes, in some bizarre way, actually go together.

P.S. The repeal is how history and it is a great day in America, and especially within the American military. An institution that relies on integrity cannot but be hurt by hypocrisy. I'm looking forward to going to work tomorrow.

1 comment:

Gerald Meaders said...

Professor

Many thanks for the longish and meaty commentary.

Populist reformers used to be hunted down, by the Roman 'knightly' class,(see e.g. my post re the Gracchi);

so we may have come some way forward from Roman times, it seems,

but I would not want to wager on the pacific nature of future political events; or, as you point out, rely at all, on Bismarck's 'providence', going forward.

All the best,
GM