The Republicans--Party Above Country
“This is not your father’s Republican Party. Gone are the instincts to find common ground for the good of the country—the proud legacy of six post-war Republican Presidents. The new Republican Leadership is now charting a far different course, an ominous course alien to more than two centuries of American Democracy—one that can only be described as party above country.”
The Hope for Change
In November of 2008, after winning a clear majority of the vote in a Presidential election for the first time since 1964, Democrats understandably looked forward with some degree of confidence to reversing a trend toward more conservative government in America by then more than three decades in the making.
President Obama would be sworn in on January 20th with enormous majorities in the Congress and despite the miseries brought on by an economy now losing 750,000 jobs a month, was blessed with widespread support from the American People who were hopeful that he could soon right the country and get things back to normal. They trusted that both he and the Congress would do everything possible to make that happen. They could not know that the Republican Party had other priorities.
Party above Country
That very night, while the country celebrated its first African-American President in Inaugural Balls throughout Washington and gatherings across the country, a dozen Republican leaders of the House and Senate met for dinner and four hours later in the words of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to “show united and unyielding opposition to the new President’s economic policies.” “We gotta challenge them on every single bill” McCarthy added.
And challenge them they did. Obama settled for a significantly smaller stimulus than the economy would need, then gave away one third of it to tax cuts designed to lure some Republican support and give the actions a bipartisan image. He got nothing for his troubles. The new Republican strategy favored blame shifting over problem solving, and as Obama would soon learn, the opposition’s party discipline had never been stronger.
The numbers required to pay for the bailout of the financial industry were enormous and frightening to the American people. The one hundred and eighty billion dollars necessary to bail out just one company—AIG—amounted to six hundred dollars for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The Big Banks dubbed “too big too fail” were all in trouble. The collapse of the domestic automobile industry responsible for three million Americans jobs was imminent. Worldwide the picture was even more dismal.
Shifting the Blame
The stage was set for blame shifting. The regulation-averse Republicans had held the White House for eight years, both branches of Congress until 2007, and they had stood by as one greed-inspired scheme after another emerged from Wall Street. But the old bulls in the party remembered the decades it took to expunge the scent of incompetence and failure from the GOP after the Great Depression. Political history would be rewritten in frantic efforts to portray the Clinton Administration as complicit in the collapse to brand the crisis with a more bipartisan image.
Then the effort began to exploit the economically terrorized American public. Talking Points were assembled. Doubt was cast on the value of government spending to alleviate the effects of the collapse. Suddenly economists and pundits were raising the specter of another Great Depression and routinely throwing around the word “trillions” in describing new government spending for loans, bailouts, and economic stimulus.
Where once Republicans like Howard Baker and Bob Dole would have been motivated by their own deep patriotism to join with Democrats and work together to rebuild the economy, the new Republicans saw only opportunity for partisan gain. “Austerity” became the new mantra, and the party’s massive propaganda machine began a sustained effort to frighten the public and starve the Obama Administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy.
A Stimulus too Small
Lifetime savings were wiped out for millions, housing prices collapsed nearly everywhere, and unemployment skyrocketed. Interest rates were cheap, but who could get a loan? The entire world was on the edge economically. Americans had been through economic collapse before but the few living souls who had actually experienced the Great Depression as adults were more than one hundred years old. The country was in uncharted territory. The psychological damage alone was profound. People badly needed to see action from their government, however the response from the White House would seem timid.
Quickly seizing the opportunity, Republicans engaged the old dependable scare tactics: ominous talk of unending trillion dollar deficits soon cowed Democrats into settling for a much-reduced stimulus package both inadequate to the task and largely invisible to the public. One third went to tax cuts and most of the rest to maintaining public sector jobs. America’s crumbling infrastructure was virtually ignored for lack of “shovel-ready” projects. When the Republican propaganda machine branded the stimulus as a trillion dollars wasted, the message seemed to have the ring of truth. With no “boots on the ground” from construction projects to say otherwise, Obama had already lost round one.
Saving the Auto Industry
As the President turned his attention to saving the rapidly collapsing auto industry where as many as three million jobs were at stake, the cynical masterminds of the GOP used the occasion to drive home the message that hundreds of billions more in taxpayer money would be wasted on an industry that had been destroyed by its greedy unions. A party that had given majority support only a few months earlier to pumping trillions of dollars into bailing out the big banks that were largely responsible for taking down the national economy refused to raise a finger to save the American automobile industry.
The President’s intervention would be vindicated in later years. As a condition for the loans he had extracted an agreement from Congress and the automakers to markedly increase mileage requirements for all new cars. This action would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and greatly benefit the environment. Three years later after General Motors and Chrysler had repaid their loans Obama was able to tout his accomplishments successfully in the key swing states of Michigan and Ohio.
The Republicans agenda was driven by an unrelenting obsession with regaining political power. Fierce opposition to the auto bailout served the purpose of branding the President as a wastrel and would allow the GOP to shape the debate for years to come. They peddled fear to an economically terrified electorate, raising the specter of unending deficits and the collapse of Medicare and Social Security. Public pressure began to mount for long-term deficit reduction and further stimulus to the damaged economy was effectively dead.
Republicans had faithfully followed their Inaugural Dinner strategy and fought Obama on the Stimulus and the Auto Industry loans. But perhaps the greatest damage to Obama’s presidency was self-inflicted. In the earliest days of his presidency, maybe even in his Inaugural Address to the nation, he should have told Americans that the financial schemers who destroyed the economy for their own profit would be vigorously prosecuted.
Instead he took the advice of a group of “revolving door” figures whose careers went back-and-forth between government service and acquiring millions in personal wealth in the financial markets. This group included his new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Economic Advisor Larry Summers, new Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and various Wall Street insiders like Bob Rubin. Perhaps they warned that vigorous prosecutions of the Wall Street perpetrators would cause serious instability, even collapse in the financial markets and bring on a second Great Depression.
Six months into the Obama Administration, even with Democrats holding vast majorities in the House and Senate, the GOP was already beginning to shape the agenda. The honeymoon was over. Financial Reform expressed in the Dodd-Frank legislation had failed to roll back some of the more egregious schemes that had led to the economic collapse. The Healthcare debate was just beginning, but the August Congressional Town Meetings would see an explosion of opposition across the country to the Administration’s signature health initiative.
Our Quite Formidable Adversaries
The White House faced a New Republican Party that they were totally unprepared to compete with. The GOP was energized by its new “Tea Party” allies and determined to define “Obama Care” to the American People in the most negative way possible. If they could not stop its passage into law, they would challenge its constitutionality in court. If they could not delay its implementation at the federal level, they would sabotage it in the states. They had a powerful grass roots movement at their disposal and momentum on their side. They were disciplined, stuck to talking points, and united in their opposition to Obama Care.
In less than a year an overwhelming mandate for change from the national electorate was rendered ineffective and became a virtual non-factor in American political discourse. Obama’s message portraying him as the agent of change had been largely personality driven yet durable enough to dispatch Hillary Clinton and put John McCain on the defensive, but the rapidly collapsing economy generated a political firestorm that blew him across the finish line. No Republican could have been elected under those circumstances. Preference became Conviction. What had been a close race became a rout.
But the stakes were far higher now. The electorate had invested enormous power and faith in the new President but with it came gigantic expectations. In normal times, politicians struggle to get the voters to listen to their message. The political electricity flows from the candidate to the electorate seeking a connection. In times of crisis, the flow is reversed. In the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, the message was transmitted to the new Administration in a double-barreled power surge.
The two-part message was clear, the first part was pleading, almost prayerful: Please do everything you can to get this economy back to normal. But the second part was borne out of deep anger as the reasons for the financial collapse became clear: Get the SOB’s who took this country down! As it became obvious that the men who took the economy down would not be brought to justice, Obama began to lose his stature as an outsider-reformer and instead began to be seen as just another politician.
The Obama Administration had in effect set itself up. In having settled for a stimulus inadequate to the task, it was at the mercy of an economy slow-walking itself to recovery. In failing to prosecute the perpetrators who had financially devastated so many Americans, it had lost the opportunity to brand Obama as a President who would fight for all of us. They had badly lost the message battle.
The result was not even close. Obama and the Democrats got their health care legislation, but the cost would be unimaginable. Republicans had managed to define Obama Care, to “brand” the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and make it the predominant issue. The 2010 Election would prove to be the most damaging blow rendered to Democratic Party interests in a half-century.
Assessing the Damage
President Obama and the American economy were able to recover well enough so that he could be re-elected in 2012 though not through the strength of his own message. Instead, his very aggressive and well funded campaign accurately “branded” Mitt Romney as an elitist who had little in common with most Americans. Though his margin was smaller than in 2008, the President’s highly efficient campaign delivered a clear majority of the electorate and lost only two states (Indiana and North Carolina) that he had carried against John McCain.
Obama’s second term began on an optimistic note as the economy slowly lurched forward and the House Republicans seemed bent on self-destruction, ready to shut down the government over yet another obscure ideological impulse. Inexplicably, Republican Governors in fully half of the states had refused for ideological reasons to accept the full federal funding authorized in the ACA designed to expand Medicaid and provide health care coverage for thousands of their poorest citizens. Though Congress was locked into inaction, the coming debate over this issue seemed likely to benefit Democrats in the Midterm elections.
But the momentum wouldn’t last. Once again as the Midterm elections approached, the Obama Administration would set itself up for failure. The Rollout of the website designed to enroll millions in Obama Care was an unmitigated disaster. Months later, the Obama Administration reached its enrollment goals, but the damage had been done. The Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature accomplishment, is by any fair measure a success, but it has been effectively “branded” as a failure in the eyes of the American people by the Republicans.
So last November as Democrats ran away from the Obama Administration and the ACA while offering no economic message of their own to the electorate, the GOP’s very negative Midterm campaign was again rewarded with landslide victories across the country. The damage to the Democratic Party has been profound. The numbers in the Senate, the House, the State Legislatures, and among the Governors are overwhelmingly Republican. But I believe in an old proverb: The night is darkest just before dawn. Despite recent Republican successes, I’m convinced that the 2016 elections will herald the emergence of a new progressive Democratic Era in American Politics. A lot of it will depend on Hillary making the transition to populist themes and becoming a recruiter-in-chief to replenish the party’s badly depleted bench.