I had assumed that the current federal budget/debt crisis in Washington would, at least finally provide some clarity on what kind of nation we wanted to be. Whether we wanted to be a country where we all pull together and tackle big problems like the federal deficit with a sense of shared sacrifice, or instead were satisfied to let the middle class shoulder the entire burden while the rich only got richer.
The standoff has demonstrated something else, too, however: the political impotence of the Republican party to govern effectively, as well as the ability of Democrats to remember to why they became Democrats in the first place.
Apparently, Republicans only can get things done when they have one-party government. Back when George W. Bush was president, they led the way with big tax cuts, two international wars, and the enactment of a slew of other conservative priorities.
Now that they share responsibility with Democrats, Republicans are so ineffectual that they can’t even take “yes” for an answer. All year, Washington Republicans had appeared to be driving the debate on the federal budget deficit by calling for massive cuts to federal spending. But, when push comes to shove, they can’t close a deal. After weeks of debate with the White House, Republicans are leaving on the table what even conservative columnist David Brooks called the “mother of all no-brainers.”
For all their fire-breathing, the Republicans have been shown to be toothless, and have, effectively, been backed into an ideological corner by President Obama over their rigid protection of tax breaks for corporate jets and big oil companies.
A new CBS poll finds that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of the Republican approach to the debt crisis. So, after working non-stop all year to become the party of financial restraint, to be seen as the ones to be trusted above others with federal spending, this is what the Grand Old Party has to show for itself? The overwhelming disapproval of the American people? All I have to say is that I hope the Republicans enjoyed their romp in 2010, because 2012 is shaping up to deliver a very different result.
Meanwhile, you know the shoe truly is on the other foot when the Democrats, the so-called “tax-and-spend” Democrats, find themselves in the political driver’s seat.
It’s not supposed to work like this. Democrats are supposed to be the sheep. The Republicans spent the last decade cowing Democrats into supporting huge deficit-creating tax hikes for the rich, going along with authorizing the gross Bush misadventure in Iraq, and more.
Republicans accomplished all of that by fracturing Democratic unity and picking off moderate and conservative Democrats.
Now it seems that Democrats, belatedly, have learned the lesson Harry Truman tried to impart when he famously remarked, “Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for the real Republican all the time.”
Shockingly, when Republicans came after Medicare and Medicaid, and other basic federal programs, this time Democrats didn’t start acting like Republicans. They didn’t cave.
They stayed united and have fought back.
Nothing demonstrates this more than the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee. Under the leadership of Kent Conrad, himself a moderate from the very red state of North Dakota, they crafted a credible deficit reduction plan that binds together Conrad and Mark Begich of Alaska with an avowed fighting liberal like Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It cuts spending responsibly, while protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
I won’t count on this newfound Democratic strength to last forever. I’m sure we’ll see yet another circular firing squad within the party. I just hope not before Election Day 2012.
Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as The Two Parties: Republicans Are Politically Impotent; Democrats Remember Why They Became Democrats in the First Place on Blogcritics.