Opinion

The Taliban GOP

Of the 219 Republicans in Congress, it now appears only three will support the stimulus bill—the narrow wedge required to squeeze out a super majority of 60 votes in the Senate. The price of enlisting three Republican defectors—and holding some of the so-called “moderate” Democrats who threatened to bolt—is a rewrite of the bill that cuts aid for education and for budget-strapped state governments.

This could mean mass lay-offs, slashed services, or increased state and local taxes—all exactly the wrong response to a deflationary recession. Understandably, commentators like Paul Krugman object that the package, which was already fifty percent short of the amount needed to counter falling demand, is now “significantly smaller and even more focused on [ineffective] tax cuts.”

Krugman may be right on the merits—after all, he’s the one with a Nobel Prize in economics—but he’s wrong on the political realities. Perhaps the stimulus should be fifty percent bigger, but what’s most remarkable here is that a new President is on course to pass the biggest single piece of legislation in American history—in his first weeks in office. More negotiation may restore some of the Senate cuts; but adamantly insisting on the best bill would almost certainly result in no bill, or at least a long delay. In the Obama phrase that agitated conservatives, such a deadlock would be “catastrophic” for the economy.

The issue now seems settled. The real question is where we go from here.

First, while the President can and should continue reaching out, he can expect to find a clenched fist on the other side of the aisle. Americans will credit and reward his attempt to transcend the old divides, but we have just seen the short life and early demise of a bipartisan era. Republican Pete Sessions of Texas has cited the Taliban as a “model” for his party’s conduct in Congress. The Republican purpose is clearly to destroy the Obama Presidency, to frustrate economic recovery and then blame the Democrats—and so recapture the Congress and the White House on the backs of a broken middle class.

This appears to be an almost universal Republican resolve. John McCain, feted by Obama at a pre-Inaugural dinner, has repaid the gesture with sour grapes. Someone who knows him well reports that he’s consumed with bitterness toward an “unfair” press, as well as toward his successful rival. He can forgive his North Vietnamese captors, but apparently not North American voters.

“Generational theft,” McCain calls the stimulus bill. But how do you raise the next generation if you don’t have a job? Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, for whom no partisan howl is too hackneyed, calls it, “the socialist way.” And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell serves up that desiccated and thoroughly discredited chestnut: “the New Deal didn’t work.”

Facts don’t matter to the GOP anymore. Nor, incredibly, does the opinion of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is urging swift passage of the stimulus. The pro-business party is willing to wreck business itself if it takes a Democratic president down with it. The Republicans’ counterfeit populism is laid bare by their objections to limits on executive compensation. Their attitude seems to be: sky high bonuses yes, solvent banks no. (Never mind who will be around to pay the bonuses.)

The financial rescue, like the stimulus, will survive the partisan carpet bombing—because it has to. But the rise of the Taliban Republicans raises a warning.

There is discussion around Washington about moving next to “reform” Social Security and Medicare. Mitch McConnell says he’d welcome that. It’s the political equivalent of the spider welcoming the fly. True to form, the Republicans would insist on private accounts and would resist raising taxes on the well off.

Entitlement reform is a Beltway holy grail. But when Ronald Reagan ventured to touch Social Security in his first year, the party was trounced at the polls the next, even though he’d been assured by his advisors the proposal would pass with few objections. They were way off the mark. It was only in 1983 that Reagan succeeded, based on the work of the bipartisan Greenspan Commission to which both parties signed up in advance. And yes, the bill did include a tax increase.

History and the character of today’s Republicans both suggest that this President, too, would be wiser to wait for a Commission of his own—and until 2011. There’s no reason to trust those who have just verified their contempt for bipartisanship. And there’s another reason to wait: To move on entitlements now would mean postponing or downgrading healthcare as a priority. The danger is not just a repeat of the Clinton experience, where dithering led to defeat; the reality is that you can’t fix Medicare unless you fix the healthcare system overall.

Finally, fixing healthcare is also essential to the economy because health costs are strangling business and devastating family budgets. That’s why there’s now widespread support in the business community for national health reform. If the Republicans block it, the President and the Democrats would have a powerful two-part message in the 2010 campaign: (1) they pushed the recovery plan through against all-out Republican opposition; and (2) they’re fighting now to provide access to healthcare for all Americans at lower costs. The Republicans would be left to fall back on their predictable subterfuge—another tax break for the wealthy while insurance premiums and co-pays go through the roof. That’s an election I’d like to see, and I don’t think Frum would like the outcome.

In the closing weeks of the presidential contest, the GOP harped on the prediction that President Obama would be tested in his first weeks in office. Who knew the test would come not from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but from the Taliban in Washington? President Obama is about to pass that test. The experience will arm him for his next engagement with the Taliban Republicans.

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