As a culture, we seem to be in an apocalyptic moment. Judging from the movie trailers, it looks like the human race is basically screwed this summer in After Earth, World War Z, and This Is the End—a comedy!—while Washington (and its black president) will be besieged by cyber-terrorists in White House Down. In the real world, we’re bombarded with warnings about our debt crisis, our economic crisis, and of course our political crisis, which is to say, our government’s inability to deal with all its other crises. Republicans in particular have become perennial prophets of doom, warning that President Obama’s foreign policies will destroy our standing in the world, that Obamacare will destroy our health care system, that out-of-control spending, growth-killing taxes, and loose monetary policy will turn us into a dystopia of inflation, high interest rates and economic paralysis.
Things are OK. And while you can’t tell from following the news—the press doesn’t like to report on planes that land safely, or seemingly obvious stuff that didn’t happen yesterday—things are getting better. The apocalypse is not nigh.
We are now in the fourth year of a slow but steady recovery. The economy is adding about 200,000 jobs a month, and has added 6.8 million private-sector jobs since the end of the Great Recession. The stock market is at an all-time high, and has almost doubled since Obama took office. The housing market is rebounding. It’s true that 7.5% unemployment is way too high, but it’s better than the double-digit unemployment we had in the wake of the financial meltdown, when the apocalypse really was nigh. The government has even turned a profit on the reviled Wall Street bailouts that ended the meltdown.
Yes, the economy would be doing even better if it weren’t being dragged down by the “sequester,” $85 billion worth of haphazard spending cuts resulting from Republican demands for government austerity. Those were misguided demands after a financial crisis, the kind of demands that have turned Europe into an economic basket case. But so far, at least, fears that the sequester could scuttle the U.S. recovery have proven to be overblown. Consumer confidence just hit a six-year high.
What about the fears that inspired the sequester and the rest of the austerity push, the fears that spiraling deficits would turn us into Greece? Well, the Congressional Budget Office now estimates the deficit at $642 billion, the lowest since the crisis; it’s been cut in half since Obama took office, the fastest reduction since World War 2. We’re not Greece. The bond markets certainly don’t think so; interest rates are at historic lows. And the runaway inflation that Paul Ryan and other loose-money critics keep predicting has yet to materialize; inflation is actually below the official Federal Reserve target of just 2 percent.
In fairness, while America’s short-term deficit is shrinking fast, our long-term deficit is still a concern, because soaring health care costs have threatened the future of Medicare and Medicaid. But there’s good news there, too. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation, health care spending is now growing at the slowest rate in five decades, which is why Medicare’s trustees just upgraded the program’s budget outlook. And there is strong evidence that Obamacare’s efforts to reorient the medical system to reward providers who keep their patients healthy instead of providers who perform more services are working. For example, Obamacare imposes financial penalties on hospitals with high rates of readmissions and central-line infections; predictably, hospitals have improved their performance in both areas. The health information technology revolution—launched by Obama’s 2009 stimulus—is also bending the cost curve, dragging a pen-and-paper system into digital age.
Meanwhile, U.S. combat forces are out of Iraq, and they’ll be out of Afghanistan next year. U.S. carbon emissions are at their lowest level in two decades, and so are U.S. oil imports. By historical standards, taxes are very low and spending is very modest. General Motors and Chrysler, wards of the state four years ago, are posting their best sales numbers in years. Gays are serving openly in the military, solar installations have increased over 1,000% in four years, a cool robot is taking cool pictures of Mars, and Tesla just paid back its government loan with interest. Things are getting better, and better is better than worse.
But the headlines are all about supposed scandals—stupid IRS agents in Cincinnati, overzealous leak investigations at the Justice Department, a dopey dispute over Benghazi talking points. These are the kind of things that politicians can obsess about when there’s no crisis on the horizon; the last time the national outlook was this bright, Republicans impeached the president for sexing up an intern. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not as if the latest wannabe-scandals are distracting official Washington from any important work it might be doing. Sure, Congress ought to do something about climate change, but as long as Republicans control the House, Congress isn’t going to do anything about climate change.
I guess that qualifies as a crisis. But one of the lessons of the Obama era, along with the general advisability of DOING STUFF regardless of the political implications, is that positive change can happen in spite of a dysfunctional system. You couldn’t build a summer movie around that—”In a world where complex legislation is implemented effectively…”—but it’s still a feel-good idea, even if it seems to have limited box-office appeal.
By: Michael Grunwald, Time Magazine, June 9, 2013
With budgetary tantrums in the Senate and investigative play-acting in the House, the Republican Party is proving once again that it simply cannot be taken seriously.
This is a shame. I don’t share the GOP’s philosophy, but I do believe that competition makes both of our major parties smarter. I also believe that a big, complicated country facing economic and geopolitical challenges needs a government able to govern.
What we don’t need is the steady diet of obstruction, diversion and gamesmanship that Republicans are trying to ram down the nation’s throat. It’s not as if President Obama and the Democrats are doing everything right. It’s just that the GOP shrinks from doing anything meaningful at all.
The most glaring example, at the moment, is in the Senate. For four years, Republican senators lambasted their Democratic colleagues — with justification — for not approving a budget, one of the basic tasks of governance. Sen. John Cornyn(R-Tex.), and others regularly took to the Senate floor to announce the number of days since the body last produced a spending plan and to blast Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for this shocking failure.
Two months ago, Reid and the Democrats finally passed a budget. Since the House has already passed its version — the controversial plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — the next step should be for both chambers to appoint members of a conference committee that would iron out the differences. But Republicans won’t let this happen.
Specifically, far-right conservatives including Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky are refusing to allow the Senate to appoint its representatives to the conference. Yes, having demanded this budget for four years, Republicans are now refusing to let it go forward.
Some Republicans, that is. Establishment types such as John McCain of Arizona are apoplectic at the antics of their tea party-inspired colleagues, which McCain called “absolutely out of line and unprecedented.”
Cruz and the others are worried that a conference committee might not only work out a budget but also make it possible to raise the federal debt ceiling without the now-customary showdown threatening default and catastrophe. They believe that brinkmanship is the only way to stop runaway government spending, which produces massive trillion-dollar deficits, which add to the ballooning national debt, which . . .
Hold on, senator. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the deficit is shrinking rapidly and will fall to $642 billion this fiscal year. That’s still substantial, but it’s less than half the deficit our government ran in 2011. More important, if annual deficits continue to decline as the CBO predicts, the long-term debt problem begins to look more manageable. That’s good news, right?
What Republicans ought to do is declare a victory for fiscal conservatism and move on to the battle to have their priorities reflected in the budget — a promising fight, since the conferees appointed by the GOP-controlled House are hardly going to be flaming liberals. Instead, the party seeks not consensus but crisis.
This is no way for a 2-year-old to act, much less the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
And speaking of juvenile behavior, I would be remiss not to mention how Rep. Darrell Issa of California and his GOP colleagues in the House are embarrassing themselves by straining to turn Obama administration missteps into Watergate-style scandals.
The deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, resulted from a security lapse of the kind that every recent administration, unfortunately, has suffered. Since future administrations will have lapses as well, congressional oversight could be useful in at least making sure the specific mistakes of Benghazi are not repeated. But instead, House Republicans summon the television cameras and ask round after round of tendentious questions — without paying the slightest attention to the answers.
Similarly, on the question of how and why the IRS gave added scrutiny to conservative “social welfare” groups seeking nonprofit status, House inquisitors seem barely interested in what actually happened. “What did the president know and when did he know it?” was an appropriate question. But the follow-up — “Harrumph, well then, why didn’t he know sooner?” — isn’t much in the way of scandal material.
And concerning the Justice Department’s overzealous crusade to thwart classified leaks — and investigative reporting — it is amusing to watch House Republicans twist themselves into champions of the hated Lamestream Media. Who knew?
None of this is boosting the GOP’s poll numbers. I’ve got an idea: Why don’t they try doing the people’s business for a change?
By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 30, 2013
The political party of Abraham Lincoln is in trouble, threatened with irrelevance, even extinction. Its weaknesses are legion.
Its congressional leaders are quite unpopular, polls show. So are the party’s positions. Its beliefs — animosity to same-sex marriage, hostility toward saner gun laws, rejection of higher taxes for the wealthy, suspicion of popular entitlement programs — are not shared by the majority of Americans.
It is bereft of ideas, committed to formulas that don’t work (cut taxes, no matter the economic conditions) and to a rejection of reasoned analysis (climate change is a hoax). It has alienated the nation’s voters of color, who represent growing blocs of influence.
As if those deficiencies were not enough, the party is falling into a civil war, its internal feuds increasingly loud and obstreperous. The only thing that still unites all parts of the Republican Party is an irrational hatred of President Barack Obama.
That’s not good for the country. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, the United States needs at least two competitive political parties dedicated to solving problems. Their solutions will differ, of course, but each should offer them. At the moment, the Republicans have no solutions — to anything.
It wasn’t so long ago, a couple of decades back, that the GOP prided itself on being the party of ideas. Its wealthy funders had created a network of research institutions to funnel their policies into Congress and state legislatures. There’s little doubt that those wealthy donors were looking to protect their own interests by emphasizing low taxes and less government regulation.
But it’s also true that GOP thinkers came up with some good ideas. The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, widely known as Obamacare, was one of them. The earned income tax credit, which reduces the federal income tax burden of lower-earning families to zero or less, was also born of conservative thinking. Unfortunately, the current GOP has either renounced or distanced itself from both of those programs.
Some of the party’s more practical members have begun to plead with their fellow partisans to change course. Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, has openly fretted about the GOP’s future. Maine senator Susan Collins has expressed frustration with her party.
And last week Bob Dole, well-respected former senator and onetime presidential nominee, gave GOP leaders a bit of advice: “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”
Here’s hoping Republican strategists do as Dole suggested — figuratively, anyway. The GOP needs to reinvent itself as a party dedicated to policies that offer solutions to current problems. That’s what Democratic leaders did back in the mid-1980s, when they finally came to terms with their growing obsolescence.
The Democratic Party was in a similar slough then. It was riven with competing factions, saddled with unpopular positions and tainted by the perception that it coddled criminals and deadbeats. It was only when the Democratic Leadership Council assiduously reinvented the party, with Bill Clinton as its standard-bearer, that it emerged from the political wilderness. And it emerged with ideas, such as a new fiscal responsibility, that gave it gravitas.
At the moment, Republicans are still at war with ideas — at least those that grow from a rational grasp of facts. There is no way, for example, to cut the deficit without raising taxes, but GOP congressional leaders insist on a voodoo math that defies that. They are obsessed with their belief that Obama has “covered up” his responsibility in the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, though countless hearings have found no evidence of any such cover-up. They insist that Obamacare will kill jobs, though they present no evidence.
In a larger sense, the GOP is at war with reality — a reality of fewer white voters, myriad family structures and challenges that demand scientific solutions. Until it makes peace with reality, it cannot recreate itself as a winning party.
By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, June 1, 2013
Former Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole slammed the state of the Republican Party over the weekend, telling Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that the GOP should be “closed for repairs” and lamenting that some of the most famous Republicans would have no chance at becoming party leaders in the Tea Party era.
“I doubt [I could fit in with the modern party],” Dole said. “Reagan wouldn’t have made it, certainly Nixon wouldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”
While Dole’s criticism of his party’s current platform could be debated, his assertion that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have prospered in the current political climate is pretty much unassailable. Here are five reasons that Republicans’ favorite Republican could never fit in with today’s party:
Although modern Republicans have posthumously deified Reagan as the patron saint of tax cuts, he actually signed at least 10 tax increases totaling $132.7 billion during his eight years as president, and had raised taxes several times before that as governor of California.
Ideologically “pure” Republicans like Eric Cantor may deny it, but if Reagan ran today, he would completely flunk Grover Norquist’s anti-tax test, and be eaten alive by the Tea Party.
Modern Republicans tend to portray the federal budget deficit as an economic and moral issue of the highest importance — an attitude that Reagan echoed when he declared the deficit to be “out of control” shortly after taking office in January, 1981. Once he was in the Oval Office, however, Reagan began enacting policies that would infamously lead Vice President Dick Cheney to scoff that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Within two years the deficit had nearly tripled, reaching $208 billion, and by the time Reagan left office it was at $155 billion; during Reagan’s two terms America went from being the world’s largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
In fairness, this is the one position on this list that the right may have been able to forgive. After all, as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum once said, “We’re all Keynesians during Republican administrations.”
Long before Rick Perry’s “oops” heard ’round the world, the Texas governor’s presidential ambitions were already on life support due to his refusal to disavow a law providing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants — a position that got him vociferously booed at a Tea Party-sponsored debate.
If the crowd couldn’t handle that benign position from Perry, they certainly wouldn’t have liked the fact that Reagan granted legal status to about three million undocumented immigrants when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. If you’d like to know what the right’s criticism might have sounded like, look no further than Tea Party representative Steve King (R-IA), who recently blamed the ’86 reform for President Obama’s election.
Reagan’s complicated relationship with Israel is yet another issue on which he and the Republican Party’s right wing could never have agreed — not after the Reagan administration called on Israel to adopt a total settlement freeze and place its nuclear facilities under international supervision, and sold highly advanced military jets to Saudi Arabia. Not to mention Reagan’s 1985 trip to Germany, where he initially declined to visit the site of a concentration camp but agreed to lay a wreath at a cemetery containing the remains of 49 members of the Waffen-SS. As Haaretz‘s Chemi Salev put it, “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”
Even if Reagan had somehow managed to survive all of the other issues on this list, his support for expanded gun sale background checks and an assault weapon ban would certainly have killed his chances of winning over the GOP base. Although Reagan — who was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 — makes for a sympathetic gun reform advocate, if Republicans can attack Sandy Hook parents, they could certainly have gone after the Gipper.
Plus, the “he only supported gun control because he was senile” excuse wouldn’t work quite as well for an active candidate.
By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, May 27, 2013
“This Is Not 2009″: Democrats Have No Reason To Prematurely Throw Up Their Hands About 2014 Midterm Elections
With the scent of scandal encircling the White House, some Republicans are already licking their chops over the 2014 midterm elections, while some Democrats are pre-emptively licking their wounds.
Not so fast, folks. Retract those tongues.
While it is impossible to predict what might drive voter attitudes in an election 18 months away, there are quite a few signs that 2014 will be nothing like 2010, which produced tremendous success for Republicans.
First, the electorate is less conservative.
In May 2009, the Tea Party had just begun to flex its muscle and feel its power on a national level. Now, the movement has lost momentum.
An April 2012 Associated Press report included a finding from Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor, that the number of Tea Party groups had fallen from about 1,000 to about 600. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found that the portion of people saying they strongly support the Tea Party, just 10 percent, was the lowest they had recorded since 2011.
Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll released Friday, the shares of Americans describing themselves as economic conservatives and social conservatives are down by more than a tenth since 2009, after having risen sharply following Barack Obama’s election a year earlier.
The portion of Republicans who said their position on economic issues was conservative — the Republican Trojan Horse for a retrograde social agenda — has seen little movement since 2009, dropping just five percentage points, from 75 percent to 70 percent.
(On the other hand, the share of Democrats who describe their positions on social issues as liberal has increased, from 45 percent to 50 percent.)
Speaking of economic issues, the economy is experiencing a resurgence, at least in some quarters.
In May 2009, the United States economy was nearing the end of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate had risen to 9.4 percent from 5.5 percent the previous year. People were losing their homes to foreclosures in record numbers. The Dow Jones industrial average had fallen to about 8,500 from more than 13,000 the previous May. And the deficit tripled from the 2008 fiscal year to the 2009 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
This had Americans rightfully worried and near-panicked about their economic prospects.
Now the economic picture couldn’t be more different.
The unemployment rate has dropped to 7.5 percent. The Dow is above 15,000 and continuing to set records. The housing sector is rebounding — “Sales of previously owned homes reached the highest level in more than three years, with the share of foreclosure purchases shrinking, as the housing market continued its rebound last month,” according to a report Thursday in The Wall Street Journal.
And the deficit is shrinking faster than expected, according to a report released last week by the budget office. The report found that if current laws are unchanged, “Relative to the size of the economy, the deficit this year — at 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (G.D.P.) — will be less than half as large as the shortfall in 2009, which was 10.1 percent of G.D.P.”
This takes almost all of the air out of the Republicans’ economic argument.
Lastly, legislative unease has become about what Republicans haven’t done, rather than what Democrats have done.
By May of 2009, President Obama had already signed the huge — though many still believe not huge enough — stimulus package, Chrysler and General Motors were in need of a bailout and the ball was rolling on the president’s historic health care law.
Conservatives were railing against what they saw as an unprecedented, ominous and ultimately ruinous expansion of government, driven by the president and made possible by a Congress controlled by Democrats.
Now, the tables have turned. Two of the most glaring legislative failures this year have ostensibly been the work of obstinate Republicans: the failure to avoid the sequester and the failure to pass expanded gun background checks legislation. According to that recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, most Americans still disapprove of the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, and according to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, 81 percent of Americans still favor the passage of a bill expanding background checks.
The next hurdle will be immigration reform. But Republicans may find a way to derail that legislation, too.
The signs look positive for Democrats this spring. This is not to say that they should prematurely lift their glasses, only that they have no reason to prematurely throw up their hands.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 24, 2013