On What’s At Stake In November’s Elections

Forty-five years ago Alabama governor George Wallace declared in his inaugural address a policy of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Opposed to the Civil Rights movement, rejecting federal authority, Wallace, an ardent racist and state’s rights advocate, sought to turn back the clock to an earlier era, but the genie of Civil Rights was already out of the bottle.

I was reminded of Wallace earlier today when I mused that the Republican Party today has a similar rallying cry — “Tax cuts now, tax cuts tomorrow, tax cuts forever!” The disastrous Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are due to expire at the end of the year (something I wrote about a little more than a year ago when the Heritage Foundation sent me a survey), and Republicans, unsurprisingly, want them extended — and even deeper tax cuts for the wealthy implemented. All at a time when the economy is in dire straits, when the federal budget is already running major deficits due to those disastrous earlier tax cuts and profligate spending on unfunded mandates and wars of choice by the previous administration. The Republican plan, then, is not just to deepen the chasm between the haves and the have-nots but to hamstring the ability of the federal government to inject money into the economy by gutting its revenues.

Except, the Republican Party doesn’t just want to restrict federal dollars in the economy. They want to remove them altogether:

Yes, Republican strategists are threatening to shut down the federal government in 2011 if they take control of one or both houses of Congress, just as they did in 1995 when they took both houses of Congress during Bill Clinton’s first term as President. Some are downright gleeful at the prospect.

The Republicans may well take at least one house of Congress; the polling trends, to say nothing of the historical trends, are in their favor. But there is a grave difference between the worlds of 1995 and 2011 — the economy. In 1995, the American economy was robust. In 2010, the American economy is sickly, and it has only been through government intervention — like the TARP program under George Bush and the stimulus package under Obama — that the American economy hasn’t utterly cratered.

The Republican Party is playing with gasoline and lighted matches if they were to go through with a plan to shut down the government.

What would happen?

In this economic climate, a government shutdown would be devastating, disrupting an already sluggish economy and rattling economic markets around the world. Government employees would be sent home without pay. Government buildings would close. Social Security checks and Medicare payments would be stopped. Basically, shutting down the government would take money out of the economy by depriving ordinary people — government employees, the sick, the elderly, perhaps even military families — of the power of the paycheck. The retail economy would be hit hard. An economy, already teetering, could easily be pushed over the edge. And the longer a standoff between Congressional Republicans and President Obama wore on, the more damage that would be done. Perhaps too much damage for the American economy to ever fully recover from.

Why? The IOUs run up during the Bush years.

George Bush’s era was, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “the expensive orgy.” Fitzgerald was writing of the Jazz Age, but the phrase applies just as well to the Bush Age. Easy credit, a lack of sound fiscal policy, and excessive deficit spending all contributed to the economic damage of the Bush years. Ten percent are out of work. The housing market bubble still hasn’t entirely burst. The IOUs — Treasury bonds, held by foreign nations and companies — will come due, especially if investors believe that the American economy can not only tumble but crater; pulling out their money and redeeming their bonds could so easily turn into a spiraling cycle of doom. Campaigning and winning on a fiscally irresponsible platform of tax cuts and government shutdowns will only agitate foreign investors to get their money out of the United States before it all goes to hell when the next Congress is seated. If the Republicans take one or both houses of Congress in November, expect a financial shock on the international markets that makes 1929 look like a picnic.

When the Republicans get serious about the country’s problems, I’ll gladly listen. But I don’t expect them to, they’re too far into their nihilism and too disconnected from the reality of the problems facing this country and the world. I fear that this November’s election will result in exactly what the Republican base fears — the country will run off the cliff and the age of American Exceptionalism will come to an end. Only, it won’t be for the reasons that they think the country will run off the cliff — President Obama and his policies that they believe are socialist or fascist or communist or totalitarian. No, it will the Republicans themselves who run the train off the cliff.

A decade ago, Bill Clinton and the Democrats had the fiscal house in order. George Bush and the Republicans pissed it all away on hookers and blow. Now Barack Obama has to clean it up — only the Republicans still want to piss it away on hookers and blow.

I cannot promise that electing Democrats guarantees that the problems facing the United States and the world will be fixed immediately or without pian. At the very least, however, it would show the world — and those who hold the purse strings the world over — that the United States remains serious about its problems and is making concrete steps toward resolving them. Electing Republicans in November, on the other hand, is not only irresponsible; it’s nihilistic, it’s insane, the world will see that the United States has absolutely no willingness to do anything to save itself, and the American Century will have reached its end.

That’s what the stakes are this November. The present may not be great, the future can be better, there are two paths, but only one leads to a positive outcome. And it’s not with the Republican Party.

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