Two parties, one direction

November 10, 2010

The Republicans will act like they have a mandate for deeply unpopular policies, but as long as Obama is still president, the Democrats can stop them--if they want to.

WASHINGTON POLITICS are about to veer further right--and it's not just Republican hands on the steering wheel.

After their victory in the November 2 elections that gave them a majority in the House, Republicans returned to the capital acting like they should run the place--and Democrats, even though they still control the Senate and the White House, are acting like it, too. Barack Obama and the Democrats talked during the campaign about not letting Republicans "put the car in R," but now that the voting is over, capitalism's second-most enthusiastic party is back at work serving Corporate America's interests.

If the outcome of the election didn't make it clear, the coming weeks and months will: The Democrats are part of the problem, not the solution.

Case in point: The decision on whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich, the first prominent issue that will come up in the lame-duck session of Congress that will convene next week.

In 2008, Obama and the Democrats swore up and down that they would scrap the tax bonanza for families whose income was more than $250,000 a year. For the very richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers, the Bush tax cuts would be worth $370,000 in 2012 alone, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center--only a little less than the average manufacturing worker makes altogether in a full decade of work.

President Obama and House Speaker-to-be John Boehner

But once in office, the Democrats dragged their feet, waiting on a vote that has to come by the end of this year on whether to extend all of the Bush tax cuts past their 2010 expiration.

With the election approaching, it seemed like the Democrats might actually force Republicans to show their stripes and vote on legislation that would let the tax cuts lapse for households making more than $250,000. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner even hinted the GOP might have to go along with the proposal, though he was quickly shut up by other Republicans.

Then the right-wing talk machine went into overdrive, supplemented by rants from wealthy Wall Street parasites like Stephen Schwarzman--and the Democrats caved, delaying a vote until after the election.

Now, Obama is signaling that the Democrats will be the ones to compromise. "I think that when we start getting specific like that, there's a basis for a conversation," he said in an interview on 60 Minutes. For Republicans, the question now is whether to settle for a two-year extension--or demand an even longer period or even get the cuts made permanent.

Thus, a proposal that will only benefit the rich--and that's opposed by a solid majority of people, according to every opinion poll--will almost certainly pass, courtesy of Republicans and Democrats alike.

THERE ARE problems ahead for Republicans. They won't come from the Democrats, but from the fact that the Republicans' true policies and political positions will be exposed to the light of day the more that they press for their agenda.

Before the election, Republicans and their Tea Partying supporters got pretty far by railing against "Obamacare" and "out-of-control spending"--without having to take positions that would be unpopular if they really spelled them out.

The Atlantic's Daniel Indiviglio wrote that the Republicans had "a brilliant strategy. There are two pretty clearly true assertions you can make about Americans. Most of them want the government to spend less. Yet almost none of them want the programs cut that they believe are important. The Republican approach of demanding massive cuts but providing no specificity perfectly speaks to both of these attitudes."

Now, the Republican majority in the House will have to spell out what it means to "get spending under control" or "leave the health care system alone." Whether their proposals get implemented depends on what Senate Democrats do, and even more so Obama. But Republican leaders, intoxicated with their election victory, are certain to act as if they have a mandate for policies that a majority of Americans oppose.

What's more, the energized Republican base that won the elections for the GOP will expect action. Party leaders in the House and Senate are nervous about the effects of the kooky fringe of the Tea Party, especially after some of its vilest candidates, like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, were beaten on November 2. But it's hard to imagine any faction of the party starting a frontal assault against the Tea Party now, after an election in which it played such a crucial role.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who claim to speak for the Tea Party have a giant microphone in front of them, and they won't hesitate to use it. The first taste of what's to come came on Election Night when Kentucky's new junior senator, Rand Paul, gave a lecture on social class to a reporter:

There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we all are interconnected in the economy. You remember a few years ago when they tried to tax the yachts. That didn't work. You know who lost their jobs? The people making the boats, the guys making $50,000 and $60,000 a year lost their jobs.

We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people, so just punishing rich people is as bad for the economy as punishing anyone. Let's not punish anyone. Let's keep taxes low and let's cut spending.

Try that one the next time the rent is due: Sorry, I'm a little low right now, but since we're all interconnected in the economy, talk to Rand Paul.

Then there's Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican right in Texas, who are continuing their crusade to take the state back to the early 19th century and its slaveowner-backed War of Independence. After the election, they proposed that Texas should drop out of the federal Medicaid health care program for the poor.

Outbursts like these will put some of the loudest voices of the Republican Party at odds with the vast majority of the public. And for a minority, they will stir not only anger, but a determination to stand up to the right. Socialists have to be looking for every opportunity to bring together those who are ready for a fight.

THE REPUBLICANS will dominate the news about U.S. politics, but don't let their arrogance or the media's pandering to the right overshadow this fact: As long as the Democrats hold the presidency and the Senate, they could stop the Republicans--if the Democrats want to "guard the change," as they promised during the election campaign.

But Obama and the Democrats are signaling the exact opposite--they're promising more retreats. That's not because the Democrats are especially cowardly, though they are--but because their real commitment isn't to defending ordinary people from attacks on their rights and their standard of living, but carrying out a program of austerity and status quo conservatism that serves the same corporate elite as the Republicans.

That isn't news--it was obvious even during the election campaign when the Democrats were trying to round up votes from their base. Even so, the Obama administration, from the president on down, went out of its way to put out two messages in particular.

On the one hand, Obama and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs attacked the Democrats' core supporters for, essentially, expecting too much from 2008's Mr. Hope and Change. At the same time, Obama was making nice with Republicans, urging them yet again to reach across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions.

That might have seemed counterproductive at a time when the Democrats needed every "base" supporter to show up at the polls to hold back the Republican tide. But there was a logic to it.

For one thing, from a cynical political point of view, Obama was setting himself up with an alibi. If Democrats lost big, Obama could blame the intransigence of the "left" for his failure to mobilize voters.

But there was a forward-looking aspect as well. Obama was setting the stage for his own shift to the right. He was positioning himself--as Bill Clinton did in 1995 and 1996, after the Republicans won big in the first mid-term election of his presidency--to be viewed as the sensible figure in the middle, working in a bipartisan fashion to enact policy over the objections of the Tea Party crazies and the "far left," as the media describe the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

That's been the message ever since the election, too--for example, at Obama's November 3 press conference, where he proclaimed himself "humbled" and willing to listen to Republican proposals on a range of topics.

After the election hoopla dies down, one major development to look for is the report of the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The commission, appointed jointly by Obama and the leaders of both parties in Congress, is supposed to give its recommendations on December 1. It's stacked with deficit hawks who are likely to propose sharp and unprecedented cutbacks in social "entitlement" programs like Medicare and Social Security.

For years, ideological conservatives and Corporate America have trained their sights on cutting "entitlements," but they haven't had the means to overcome the deep public sentiment against such cuts. The current fiscal and economic crisis is providing them with the opportunity. And Obama, no less a servant of Corporate America than his Republican opponents, will likely give them what they've been looking for.

Obama and the Democrats have already ceded so much ground that any sort of triangulation--the term given to Bill Clinton's policy of compromise and concession--will amount to meeting the Republicans halfway on how much to cut programs like Social Security by, not whether to cut in the first place.

During the election campaign, most Republicans didn't have the confidence to spell out the kind of cuts in entitlements they would like to force. But an assist from the bipartisan commission and Obama could make slashing Medicare or raising the Social Security retirement age seem like the "centrist" way to go. And if liberals and Democratic "base" groups protest, Obama will attack them with the same rhetoric he used during the campaign.

Even on policies where it will appear that Republicans and Democrats can come together--say, on spending for infrastructure development or education reform--these will certainly come with huge concessions to neoliberal ideology, such as expanded privatization. This is because the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are committed to neoliberalism.

Facing the coming onslaught, leaders of many unions and advocacy groups for civil rights, women, LGBT people and the poor will be tempted to cling even closer to the Democrats and Obama. But if the last two years have shown anything, it's the perils of that strategy.

Barack Obama was always much more of a conventional Democrat than his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign indicated, as left publications like this one pointed out. But the last two years have proved the point beyond question.

The sooner the millions who want real change organize to fight for it, the better. That's the only way to challenge the bipartisan "austerity" consensus.

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