Sunday, February 1, 2009
By FRANK RICH
HERE’S a bottom line to keep you up at night: The economy is falling faster than Washington can get moving. President Obama says his stimulus plan will save or create four million jobs in two years. In the last four months of 2008 alone, employment fell by 1.9 million. Do the math.
The abyss is widening. Of the 30 companies in the Dow Jones industrial index, 22 have announced job cuts since October. Unemployment is up in all 50 states, with layoffs at both high-tech companies (Microsoft) and low (Caterpillar). The December job loss in retailing is the worst since at least 1939. The new-home sales rate has fallen to its all-time low since record-keeping began in 1963.
What are Americans still buying? Big Macs, Campbell’s soup, Hershey’s chocolate and Spam — the four food groups of the apocalypse.
The crisis is at least as grave as the one that confronted us — and, for a time, united us — after 9/11. Which is why the antics among Republicans on Capitol Hill seem so surreal. These are the same politicians who only yesterday smeared the patriotism of any dissenters from Bush’s “war on terror.” Where is their own patriotism now that economic terror is inflicting far more harm on their constituents than Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent W.M.D.?
The House stimulus bill is an inevitably imperfect hodgepodge-in-progress. Obama’s next move, a new plan to prevent the collapse of America’s banks, may prove more problematic still, especially given the subpar record of the new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, in warding off calamity while at the New York Fed. No one should expect the Republicans to give the new president carte blanche, fall blindly into lock step or be “post-partisan.” (Though that’s exactly what the G.O.P. demanded of Democrats with Bush: You were either with him or with the terrorists.)
But you might think that a loyal opposition would want to pitch in and play a serious role at a time of national peril. Not by singing “Kumbaya” but by collaborating on possible solutions and advancing a policy debate that many Americans’ lives depend on. As Raymond Moley, of F.D.R.’s brain trust, said of the cross-party effort at the harrowing start of that presidency in March 1933, Hoover and Roosevelt acolytes “had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats” as they urgently tried to rescue their country.
The current G.O.P. acts as if it — and we — have all the time in the world. It kept hoping in vain that the fast-waning Blago sideshow would somehow impale Obama or Rahm Emanuel. It has come perilously close to wishing aloud that a terrorist attack will materialize to discredit Obama’s reversals of Bush policy on torture, military tribunals and Gitmo. The party’s sole consistent ambition is to play petty politics to gum up the works.
If anything, the Republican Congressional leadership seems to be emulating John McCain’s September stunt of “suspending” his campaign to “fix” the Wall Street meltdown. For all his bluster, McCain in the end had no fixes to offer and sat like a pet rock at the White House meeting on the crisis before capitulating to the bailout. His imitators likewise posture in public about their determination to take action, then do nothing while more and more Americans cry for help.
The problem is not that House Republicans gave the stimulus bill zero votes last week. That’s transitory political symbolism, and it had no effect on the outcome. Some of the naysayers will vote for the revised final bill anyway (and claim, Kerry-style, that they were against it before they were for it). The more disturbing problem is that the party has zero leaders and zero ideas. It is as AWOL in this disaster as the Bush administration was during Katrina.
If the country wasn’t suffering, the Republicans’ behavior would be a laugh riot. The House minority leader, John Boehner, from the economic wasteland of Ohio, declared on “Meet the Press” last Sunday that the G.O.P. didn’t want to be “the party of ‘No’ ” but “the party of better ideas, better solutions.” And what are those ideas, exactly? He said he’ll get back to us “over the coming months.”
His deputy, the Virginia congressman Eric Cantor, has followed the same script, claiming that the G.O.P. will not be “the party of ‘No’ ” but will someday offer unspecified “solutions and alternatives.” Not to be left out, the party’s great white hope, Sarah Palin, unveiled a new political action committee last week with a Web site also promising “fresh ideas.” But as the liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga observed, the site invites visitors to make donations and read Palin hagiography while offering no links to any ideas, fresh or otherwise.
For its own contribution to this intellectual void, the Republican National Committee convened last week under a new banner, “Republican for a Reason.” Perhaps that unidentified reason will be determined by a panel of judges on a TV reality show. It had better be brilliant given that only five states (with 20 total electoral votes) now lean red in party affiliation, according to Gallup. At this rate the G.O.P. will be in Alf Landon territory by 2012.
The Republicans do have one idea, of course, but it’s hardly fresh: more and bigger tax cuts, particularly for business and the well-off. That’s the sum of their “alternative” stimulus plan. Obama has tried to accommodate this panacea, perhaps to a fault. Mainstream economists in both parties believe that tax cuts in the stimulus package will deliver far less bang for the buck than, say, infrastructure spending. The tax-cut stimulus embraced a year ago by the G.O.P. induced next-to-no consumer spending as Americans merely banked the savings or paid down debt.
We also now know conclusively that the larger Bush tax cuts, besides running up record deficits and exacerbating income inequality, were also at best a placebo on our road to ruin. In a January survey of economists, including former McCain advisers like Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Mark Zandi, The Washington Post determined that the job growth the Bush administration kept bragging about (“52 straight months!”) was a mirage inflated by the housing bubble. Job growth — about 2 percent — was in fact the most tepid of any eight-year period “since data collection began seven decades ago.” Gross domestic product grew at a slower pace than in any eight years since the Truman administration.
But even if tax cuts alone could jump-start a recovery, they couldn’t do the heavy lifting that Obama has promised and the country desperately needs: a down payment on a new economy to replace our dilapidated 20th-century model and bring back long-term growth. The Republicans don’t acknowledge the need for this transformation, or debate it in good conscience, preferring instead to hyperventilate over the contraceptives in a small family-planning program since removed from the stimulus bill. All it takes is the specter of condoms for the party of Vitter, Foley and Craig to go gaga.
The Republicans’ other preoccupation remains Rush Limbaugh, who is by default becoming their de facto leader. While most Americans are fearing fear itself, G.O.P. politicians are tripping over themselves in morbid terror of Rush.
These pratfalls commenced after Obama casually told some Republican congressmen (correctly) that they won’t “get things done” if they take their orders from Limbaugh. That’s all the stimulus the big man needed to go on a new bender of self-aggrandizement. He boasted that Obama is “more frightened” of him than he is of the Republican leaders in the House or Senate. He said of the new president, “I hope he fails.”
Obama no doubt finds Limbaugh’s grandiosity more amusing than frightening, but G.O.P. politicians are shaking like Jell-O. When asked by Andrea Mitchell of NBC News on Wednesday if he shared Limbaugh’s hope that Obama fails, Eric Cantor spun like a top before running off, as it happened, to appear on Limbaugh’s radio show. Mike Pence of Indiana, No. 3 in the Republican House leadership, similarly squirmed when asked if he agreed with Limbaugh. Though the Republicans’ official, poll-driven line is that they want Obama to succeed, they’d rather abandon that disingenuous nicety than cross Rush.
Most pathetic of all was Phil Gingrey, a right-wing Republican congressman from Georgia, who mildly criticized both Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to Politico because they “stand back and throw bricks” while lawmakers labor in the trenches. So many called Gingrey’s office to complain that the poor congressman begged Limbaugh to bring him on air to publicly recant on Wednesday. As Gingrey abjectly apologized to talk radio’s commandant for his “stupid comments” and “foot-in-mouth disease,” he sounded like the inmate in a B-prison-movie cowering before the warden after a failed jailbreak.
“It’s up to me to hijack the Obama honeymoon,” Limbaugh soon gloated, “and I’ve done it.” In his dreams. He has hijacked what’s left of the Republican Party; the Obama honeymoon remains intact. The nightmare is that we have so irrelevant, clownish and childish an opposition party at a moment when America is in an all-hands-on-deck emergency that’s as trying as war. To paraphrase a dictum that has been variously attributed to two of our most storied leaders in times of great challenge, Thomas Paine and George Patton, the Republicans should either lead, follow or get out of the grown-ups’ way.