I am very relieved that Barack Obama was re-elected on Tuesday, that demographic trends clearly are pointing away from the Republicans, and that I will not in the next four years have to watch the unraveling of all the national political achievements of the last 100 years. I am encouraged by the demographic trends that certainly favor the party I have supported all my life. On the morrow of this election it would be easy for any Democrat not only to gloat, but to look forward confidently to the future. But alas, that is how I am feeling and that is not what I am going to do today.
I have encountered many moving moments researching my new book on American entry into the Second World War, but none touched me more deeply than an exchange between a Republican Senator and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox in hearings on the Lend-Lease bill in January 1941. Knox, a Republican newspaper publisher from New Hampshire who had acquired the Chicago Sun-Times, had been the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate in 1936. Then and in subsequent editorials published as a book, he had attacked Franklin Roosevelt as a socialist, a Communist, a totalitarian, and a meddler in the economy whose policies were making it impossible for free enterprise to work. But somehow--I am not sure how--he and FDR had maintained a cordial relationship into the late 1930s, and in June 1940, after the fall of France, Roosevelt appointed him to the Navy Department and Henry M. Stimson, another Republican, to the War Department. During the hearings a Republican began quoting Knox's attacks on Roosevelt back to him. "Oh, you could find much worse than that," said Knox. But then he became serious. "Senator," he said, "I am not ashamed of having been a Republican all my life. I am not ashamed of being a Republican now. But I am not functioning as a Republican now."
I feel it incumbent upon me as a Democrat to face that while Obama's re-election was by far the superior outcome of the election, the country is left with gigantic problems that we show no signs of addressing. My own view of what those problems are is quite different from the mainstream one. The deficit and the national debt are far from the top of my list. The deficit is already falling and it is nowhere near the deficits incurred by Lincoln during the Civil War or FDR in the Second World War. The national debt, as I have pointed out here before, is effectively about half of its official figure, since the rest is held either by the Federal Reserve or by the Social Security Trust Fund. The latter portion need never be paid, as long as payments into Social Security are adequate to pay benefits, and when the foolish payroll tax reduction expires at the end of this year, they will be once again.
Our problems, instead, are unemployment and economic inequality--which in fact are closely related. We are learning the hard way what our grandparents learned 80 years ago. An economy in which a small number of people reap all the profit cannot prosper, because most of the purchasing power generated will go to waste. We have not only too few jobs, but too few well-paying jobs. (That problem went almost unmentioned during the campaign.) The whole upper half of the economy needs to pay more taxes and the government needs to use the money to put people back to work. The minimum wage needs to be substantially increased. Millions of people still need mortgage relief And evidently, we need more effective labor laws One or two Sundays ago, the New York Times. printed an extraordinary story about the effects of the computer age on the labor market. Computer programs tell grocery stores, department stores and restaurants exactly how many workers they need and when they need them. This is what an economist calls "rationalizing" the labor market--but the result is that increasing numbers of workers do not work enough hours every week to earn benefits or a living wage. This cannot go on--but no one is doing anything about it. Nor in the long run can the political system remain healthy if we allow people like the Koch brothers to accumulate fortunes in the billions. Their money was in fact wasted, from their point of view, in this year's election, but there is no guarantee that it will always be thus.
Nor is this all. The exit polls this year tell a frightening story of a divided nation. "It would mean the end of everything I worked for," the late Jackie Robinson once remarked, "if baseball were integrated and the political parties were segregated." But so they are, with huge majorities of black, Hispanic and Asian Americans voting Democratic while 59% of whites vote Republican. Incredibly, fifty years after Marin Luther King, race is a better predictor of voting than either education level or economic status. You don't have to be the son of a first-generation American Jewish father and a near-Mayflower descendant wasp mother like me to feel that this situation is a repudiation of everything the United States is supposed to stand for. The nation today is as divided regionally and ethnically as it was in the wake of the Civil War, and that situation did not create a healthy political environment.
Barack Obama should now regret, I think, that his campaign evidently wrote off the House of Representatives as a lost cause and didn't realize what was possible in the Senate. To the amazement of all--including Nate Silver, who called the presidential race exactly--Democrats won Senate races in North Dakota and Montana. They could easily have picked up a Nevada seat as well, it seems, had they known that they had a chance. The decision to write off the Congress was, like so many of this Administration's decisions, reminiscent of the Clinton Administration, which did the same thing in 1996. According to Paul Krugman, preliminary counts suggest that more voters chose Democrats than Republicans for Congress this year, but thanks to gerrymandering the Republicans maintained most of their majority. Despite media claims to the contrary, John Boehner showed no inclination to compromise on taxes. I don't think that he can, at least until January, because if he did, his career as speaker would almost surely come to an end and he would give way to Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan. He has a majority of rigid ideologues who hate government and don't care if they get re-elected or not.
There's a strong possibility that the country won't get back on the right track with respect to economic and financial policy in my lifetime (and I expect that to last another 25 years at least.) But if it is ever going to, the best hope by far would be for the President to refuse to make a deal and let the Bush tax cuts expire in toto, for everyone. The sequestration will take care of itself, I think, because every major institution in the country, public and private, is against it, for very good reasons, and a sufficient number of Republicans will have to agree to the change. But the President must show the country that "compromises" with the House Republicans will not determine the country's future if he is going to leave a substantial legacy behind. If a new series of cuts drives the economy back into recession, as it did in 1937 and as it has done in Britain today, the Republicans will gain seats again next time. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Harry Reed has been quoted to the effect that he wants to do something about the filibuster. That would involve a confrontational move as well--a ruling from the chair, Vice President Biden, that the Senate rules have expired and that they can be amended by majority vote. But it is desperately needed as well.
We have pulled back from a political cliff. We have not yet started in the right direction, and I'm afraid the odds that we will are less than 50-50.