Monday, November 17, 2008

"Core Principles" vs. Results

This time, a real headline kvetch. My suggestion was above, but the editor's choice ("Dems focus on results while GOP ponders ideology") makes me sound more certain than I am (after all, I am a Democrat) that the new administration and Congress actually will do the right things. And, you could have fixed it without changing a word just by adding, as I've done below, a colon after "Dems" and capitalizing "Focus." That way it's more of an exhortation than a prediction. And then, lo and behold, after I filed the column, Stan Greenberg and Robert Borosage bring the data in support of the thesis that moderates actually want government to get stuff done. (H/t: Matthew Yglesias) Data and op-ed argument, together at last! I love their line that Obama and the Congress have to produce: "Failure does have consequences, as George Bush proved."

Anyway, on to this week's column:

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 16, 2008

I feel the GOP's post-election pain. I became chair of the Arizona Democratic Party after the 1994 Republican sweep, when Newt Gingrich seemed as fresh, exciting, and intellectual as, say, Barack Obama. A Sunday talk show could have only Republican guests, and our only statewide Democratic officeholder was Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings, who made me seem terse.

There's a similar quality to Democrats' plaintive laments fourteen years ago and the GOP's today. Just as we hearkened back to the New Deal or Great Society for current justification, the Republicans are in thrall to the ghost of Ronald Reagan, who is about as relevant today as FDR and LBJ were in 1994. "We gave you Medicare, and you turned on us!" said the D's, just as Republicans today say, "We're the Party of Reagan, and now that means nothing to you?" Well, yes.

We Democrats went through the same "they like our ideas but they don't like us, what's with that?" phase that Republicans are going through. There's a difference, though. When Democrats talk about ideas, what we really mean are things like health insurance, jobs, and education. When Republicans talk about idea, what they really mean is ideology -- cut taxes, and cut spending that doesn't affect me.

And that's the difference, because most people aren't that ideological. Oh, there are some consistent ideological philosophers who resent reality for not conforming to their theories. Some teenage boys, too old for dinosaur toys while still too nerdy for girls, are wonderful libertarians. There may be some leftists who still believe in government programs for their own sake, in the dystopian vision of "equality" in the Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." But I frequent most places in Arizona where lefties hang out, and if those folks still exist, I'm just not seeing them.

But I hear all the time from 'wingers convinced that conservatism hasn't failed, it (after eight years of Bush-Cheney!) just hasn't been tried yet. As Ed Kilgore noted last week, liberals tempered their ideology to support Barack Obama, and cut him slack during the election -- while 'wingers made John McCain demonstrate his fidelity to conservative dogma all the way to Election Day. And Democrats know that we'll be judged in 2010 and '12 on whether the economy turns around and the Iraq war ends, not on whether we complied with an abstract governing philosophy.

It's easy to convince people that they should pay less in taxes, but it's not nearly as easy to make them demand less from government. George W. Bush is getting a raw deal from Republicans these days, because the supposedly bad "big government" stuff -- Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the farm bill, the steel tariff, the big increases in domestic spending -- all happened during the first term, and Bush was triumphantly reelected in 2004. During the second term, Bush laid on the conservatism, with far more restrictive budgets and attempting to privatize Social Security, and voters turned on him in record numbers. After governing more conservatively, he's about as popular as Nixon when he resigned, but then again, we're a less forgiving people than we were 30 years ago.

Even if they don't like government in general, people do expect things from Washington. They mock government agencies, but expect that FEMA won't collapse during a Katrina and leave Americans suffering in Fourth World conditions. They detest earmarks in general, but support funding for breast cancer studies, children's hospitals, and highways -- and don't dare touch foreign aid for Israel, another earmark. People support across-the-board spending freezes, but also want new spending for veterans' health, space exploration, and medical research.

All those things involve taxing everybody to pay for things that don't necessarily benefit everybody. Republicans now call that socialism. And Republicans are welcome to make a priority of cutting capital gains taxes, if they think the most important thing is helping people who still have any net capital gains to tax. The GOP is welcome to talk about core principles among themselves, but the new Democratic administration and the Congress? Their job is to get stuff done. Fast.

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