Thursday, June 7, 2012

A referendum on political behavior

One thing is certain about the election this year.  It is a referendum on political behavior.  American voters have the opportunity to reward or punish members of Congress who have engaged in the most callous disregard for the welfare of the American people that I have witnessed in a lifetime of following politics.  Most of the members of Congress who have behaved badly and should suffer at the ballot box for their behavior are Republicans. 

Since it became evident that the 2008 financial crisis would be one of epic proportions and that our country was on the fast track to another Great Depression, almost everyone with even the most fundamental knowledge of how the U. S. economy works knew what we had to do.  I’m including here practically every member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, the President, the nation’s economists, former Presidents, and on and on.  Among other things, we needed a sizable stimulus to pump money in the economy as quickly as possible to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs.  We needed to first bail out the banks and financial institutions and then re-regulate the financial sector to prevent the kind of reckless speculation that got us into trouble.  We needed to use federal government spending to replace the demand for product and services in the private sector that had disappeared almost overnight.  We needed to help the states and local governments to avoid laying off public employees since the last thing we needed during a deep recession was to cut state and local services that large numbers of people would be forced to depend upon until the economy rebounded.  In short, we needed to use the power of the federal government to borrow to do what consumers and businesses were not doing and could not do, to spend and spend and spend.  Ideally, we needed to spend on infrastructure projects that would have a long-term payoff, provided we could get them up and running fast.  Everyone knew that such heavy short term investments would cause the deficit to explode.  Everyone knew that we would have to bring this new larger deficit down long-term.  We needed a plan for shared sacrifice that together with the revival of the economy would bring the deficit down to a sustainable 60% or so of GDP or less over a 10 or 20 year period.  It was clear we needed a two-part plan.  First, aggressive short-term (3 to 5 year) spending by the federal government to save public sector jobs and to create demand in the private sector that would give employers a reason to stop firing and start hiring.  Second, we needed to get our financial house in order by gradually reigning in spending and equally gradually return taxes to the levels of the 50s and 60s. 

As I said, everyone in both parties knew what we needed to do.  Obama and most of the Democrats tried.  They offered proposals time and again to do the things I just outlined that everyone knew we needed to do.  Democrats even agreed to find ways to reduce the cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social support programs they held dear provided the reductions could be done responsibly over time.  Republicans resisted, resisted and resisted.  Every time the Democrats and Obama thought they were close to a grand bargain that would allow the country to do what everyone knew needed to be done, the Republicans walked away.

It would have been one thing if the Republicans walked away because they just didn’t understand the seriousness of the problems the country was facing or they had evidence that what everyone believed we needed to do to get the economy moving again was wrong.  They had no such evidence.  By in large, Republicans blocked, delayed or reduced the effectiveness of the actions I outlined earlier for purely political reasons.  Republican strategists convinced most members of the Republican Party that the party’s best chance of winning back seats in Congress in 2010 and the Presidency in 2012 was to have unemployment high and the nation in economic turmoil.  Their goal was to prevent actions to make a bad economic situation better long enough so that they could blame the bad economy on Obama and the Democratic Party.  The results of the 2010 election convinced them that their strategy was effective.  They doubled down, going so far in 2011 as to actually put the credit worthiness of the United States at risk over an issue that should have been routine, raising the debt ceiling.

If American voters go to the polls this November and vote for Republicans, they will be sending a message to politicians in all parties that when you are out of power, refusing to compromise even when your refusal will hurt the country is good politics since American voters will blame the incumbent party for their troubles.  They will reward your bad behavior.

As I said, this election is a referendum on political behavior.  It is our choice.  We will pay huge price if we make the wrong choice.

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