Monday, October 3, 2011

That used to be... wait, that IS us

Here's an interesting review in The New York Times of a new book by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us. But what's most interesting to me is what it tells us about the authors - or at least about the reviewer.

I'm not familiar with Michael Mandelbaum, but I've always enjoyed Thomas L. Friedman's writing. Still, I remember that he was a big supporter of the Iraq War. But he was still a guy I could respect even when I disagreed with him.

The reviewer, Walter Russell Mead, is editor at large at The American Interest, a magazine which split off from The National Interest in 2005. According to Wikipedia, "This split was seen as representative of a larger schism among Republicans and the end of an uneasy alliance between neoconservatives and realists that had characterized the Reagan years."

What does this mean? Well, I haven't read the book, so I don't know if this review presents it fairly or not. But the reviewer, at least - and I suspect the authors, too - seems to fit a clear pattern I've seen of conservatives who argue against the far-right loons who've completely taken over the Republican Party, but... still can't bring themselves to say anything good about the Democrats.

Note this line, for example:
The authors provide a thoughtful and balanced corrective to critics on the left who believe that our present economic troubles demonstrate the fundamental failure of the liberal democratic capitalist ideas on which American society is built, and the critics on the right who believe that only a return to 19th-century small government policies can save us.

Note that those "critics on the right" control the Republican Party. But where are those "critics on the left"? They do exist, of course, but they're a tiny minority in America, and they've got no power at all in the Democratic Party. In fact, they've never controlled the party, and it's actually moved to the right in recent decades.

Yesterday, I posted about Elizabeth Warren, who's really been thrilling progressives lately. But even her positions aren't anywhere close to those supposed "critics on the left." But this reviewer is so eager to present this "both sides are at fault" theme that he ignores that huge difference. I don't know if the book does that, too, but I really suspect that it does. This is very typical of moderate conservatives these days.

Note this part, too:
But the authors of this book also have uncomfortable words for Democrats. Hamiltonians historically believed in sound government finance and efficient administration. This is not the kind of talk that public sector labor unions and partisans of the entitlement state like to hear.

Say what? Democrats don't believe in "sound government finance and efficient administration"? Heh, heh. Note that it was a Democratic Congress which passed the first pay-as-you-go rules in 1990, requiring that new spending or tax cuts be offset, so as not to increase the federal deficit. (President George H.W. Bush signed the law, which got him in trouble with the far-right loons in his party. Republicans in Congress opposed it.)

Those rules expired in 2002, and the Republicans - by then, controlling all three branches of the federal government - refused to renew them. The budget deficit then ballooned out of control. When the Democrats eventually took control again, they reinstated those rules, at first as a rule in the House of Representatives (which Republicans cancelled when they took over last fall), then as a statutory bill in 2010.

These efforts were far from perfect - indeed, I would never imply that the Democrats are perfect - but the evidence shows pretty well that the Democratic Party was pretty much the only party worried about "sound government finance and efficient administration" for at least the past couple of decades now. For the Republicans, as Dick Cheney said, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

These days, of course, deficits do matter to the Republicans, but only as a political tool. It's funny how deficits only matter when there's a Democratic president, isn't it? Of course, that's just their rhetoric, since at the same time, they're doing everything they can to cut taxes on the rich and increase the deficit even more.

But my point is that moderate Republicans just can't bring themselves to praise the Democrats, let alone to switch parties, even when the Democratic Party has moved to the right itself - and taken pretty much the exact same positions they advocate!

This article in The Washington Post shows that, too, this time with moderate conservatives - and yes, Thomas L. Friedman is one of them - calling for a third party:
Calling for a third party is a quick and easy way to get yourself booked for a round of cable TV appearances. But many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground that allegedly can only be staked out by a third party.

That party is known as the “Democratic Party,” and it already holds many of the positions these commentators want a third party to espouse. ...

Here, for instance, is my Post colleague Matt Miller, offering up a well-imagined speech that a third party presidential candidate might give:
How’s this for something different? I want to raise your taxes, cut spending on programs you like, and force you to rethink how we run our schools, banks, armies, hospitals and elections. And I want you to cheer when I’m done. ...

Democrats and Republicans will tell you, as I do, that they want to make America competitive again, keep faith with our deepest values of fairness and opportunity, and fix our broken political system. But the Democrats’ timid half-measures and the Republicans’ mindless anti-government creed can’t begin to get us there.

It’s hard to see how this constitutes “something different.” After all, a major presidential candidate has already said this. His name is Barack Obama, and he’s currently the President — you know, the guy who’s running for reelection. He has repeatedly called for a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts as the only way out of our fiscal mess. Indeed, Obama explicitly said during his Twitter town hall that fixing our fiscal situation will require cutting spending “on programs I like,” using language almost identical to Miller’s imagined third party candidate. Call that just talk if you will, but Obama and Dems already agree to $1 trillion in cuts as part of the debt ceiling deal, and they’ve already agreed that entitlements cuts will be on the table during the supercommittee deliberations on the deficit.

By contrast, the other major political party in America — the GOP — is not open to any kind of balance between tax hikes and spending cuts. Even if you think Dems are not going far enough in their call for spending and entitlement cuts, it’s still a fact that only one of the two parties already is calling for, and has already agreed to, the general concept that supposedly requires a third party candidate to ride to the rescue.

On health care, Miller envisions his third party candidate arguing the following: “Democrats must accept a private insurance industry and Republicans must accept that some people can’t afford decent policies on their own.” Not only have Democrats already “accepted a private insurance industry,” it’s the basis for the reform plan Dems already passed. That one is known as the “Affordable Care Act.” Has it solved all our problems? Of course not, but in many ways it’s a fundamentally centrist first stab at it.

On national security, Miller envisions his third party candidate claiming that “we need to be smart hawks.” But that’s exactly the stance Obama — who famously said he’s not opposed to “all wars,” only “dumb wars” — has adopted. Indeed, from the point of view of many liberals, his policies — on Afghanistan, civil liberties, and the war on terror — embody that stance to a fault.

In fairness to Miller, he has been one of the few commentators willing to call out GOP extremism and intransigence on taxes for what it is. And there are far worse offenders when it comes to the calls for a third party. Tom Friedman has repeatedly called for a third party because, he opines, we need “spending cuts, increases in revenues and investments in the sources of our strength.” In the real world, that’s an endorsement of the Democratic position. ...

Let’s face it: At bottom, the calls for a third party are founded on a dodge — a refusal to acknowledge that the Democratic Party is far closer than the GOP to occupying the fabled ideological middle that they themselves have defined as the space that only a third party can claim.

Now, I think I'm to the left of most of the Democratic Party today (probably close to Elizabeth Warren's positions, though), but even I haven't abandoned "liberal democratic capitalist ideas." And I certainly believe in "sound government finance and efficient administration."

Our problems in America do not stem from opposing extremes, but rather that one side - the Republicans, the right-wing - has gone completely off the rails.

Of course, moderate conservatives should have seen that coming. The Republican Party's "Southern strategy" of appealing to white racists - a very cynical, but highly successful, political move to take the South from the Democrats after the 1964 Civil Rights Act - filled the party with fearful white Bible-thumping bigots.

Mainstream Republicans thought they'd use those people, but to do that, they had to continue to throw them bones. And since they weren't just racists, there were other positions which appealed to them, too. So the Republican Party started abandoning the separation of church and state, started abandoning environmental protection, started abandoning even reasonable gun control laws.

These things lost them the Northeast, which had previously been a Republican stronghold, but by political calculations alone - at least in the short-term - the Southern strategy was clearly beneficial. At the national level, Republicans have pretty well dominated in America for decades, with only temporary setbacks from even such complete disasters as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.

But the "Tea Party" tail started wagging the Republican dog. Mainstream Republicans thought to use the loons, but the loons became too powerful. Now, the loons are the Republican base. And when extremists take control, you just can't be too extreme. The biggest danger in the Republican Party these days is being seen as "moderate." That's the kiss of death for a GOP politician.

And so we get moderate conservatives bemoaning what's become of their party,... but they still can't bring themselves to say anything good about the Democrats. It could be funny, I suppose. But I really can't laugh, because when you get right down to it, I'll bet these people will still support the loons.

Unfortunately, this isn't a rebellion by the remaining sane Republicans (however many that might be). That's what we need. Instead, it's just grumbling by some increasingly impotent conservatives, people who went along with sucking up to the crazies - the racists, the religious fundamentalists, the gun nuts, the fearful anti-immigrant cowards - instead of abandoning the GOP when that became the official policy.

Even today, if sane Republicans started abandoning the party en masse, the loons would go back to being just a fringe element in the GOP. And if they won't do that, well, they're still aiding and abetting what's happening, no matter how much they moan about it.

Hey, the Democrats aren't any great prize. You don't have to tell me about their faults. But they're still reasonably sane, at least, which isn't something you can say about the Republicans.

I guess I've become a pretty staunch Democrat these days just because they're the only real alternative. And, well, I do have to give them credit for Social Security, Medicare, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and pretty much everything progressive that's happened in America for the past century.

But they're not perfect. If you want perfect,... well, good luck with that.

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