The press is full of stories about the government shutdown fiasco engineered by Ted Cruz and those crazy House tea party republicans. But let’s not let this latest clown show obscure our understanding about who’s continuing to drive economic policy in Washington these days. Like they have since the Reagan administration, it’s still the Republicans.
These days, Republicans may be losing politically and resorting to increasingly anti-majoritarian means—gerrymandering, filibuster abuse, voter suppression, activist Supreme Court decisions, legislative terrorism—to nullify election results. But on economic-policy matters they are setting the terms. Senator Ted Cruz can be justly described as a demagogic fool, but lately he’s been on the offensive far more than the White House has. The deficit is in fairly precipitous decline, but job growth is anemic, and millions of Americans remain chronically unemployed. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and last year they won a larger share of the national vote in the House than Republicans did. And yet the dominant argument in Washington is over spending cuts, not over ways to increase economic growth and address acute problems like inequality, poor schools, and infrastructure decay. “The whole debate over the last couple of weeks is playing against a backdrop of how much to increase austerity, not to invest in the economy,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said last week. “We are living in a time of government withering on the vine.”
Need one require supporting evidence for the claim, that’s not hard to find.
It went unnoticed amidst the debt ceiling fight, but last weekend, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House selected the lawmakers that will negotiate with the Senate to hammer out a final version of the farm bill, the massive bill that funds agriculture and nutrition programs. The main stumbling block for months has been how much money the bill should devote to food stamps; the House wants to strip $39 billion from the program, and the Senate wants to cut just $4 billion.
So don’t be distracted by accounts of the Tea Party “defeat.” The most important thing about the increasingly spectacular displays of ridiculousness emanating from the Republican Party is that their circus act is drawing our attention away from an at least equally significant problem — the failure of President Obama and the Democrats to seriously oppose the Republican ideology of domestic austerity.
The domestic economy — all of its major features from high unemployment and job insecurity and the collapse (and bailout) of the banking industry, to the spectacular success of the richest 1% of the population — is a result of forty years of right-wing antipathy to the social safety net and infatuation with unregulated markets. Since the 1970s but mostly since we elected Ronald Reagan, we’ve steadily pursued a consistent policy of deregulation, free trade, and tax cutting, all of which were trumpeted by conservatives as policies which were most likely to unleash economic growth and national prosperity. Despite electing the occasional Democrat as president and despite occasionally handing the reins of power in the House or Senate to the Democrats, these conservative economic policies have continued uninterrupted. So the world we live in now is the fruit of these conservative economic seeds.
And the conservatives have been correct, in a sense. Certainly, the standard of living of the richest Americans has consistently gotten better since the Reagan administration. There’s been an amazing amount of technological innovation, so if you choose to measure standard-of-living by the ease with which the average citizen can check their email on a smartphone, the economy has been spectacularly dynamic and productive. But of course we also need to acknowledge that for the less-than-rich, this economy has meant flat to declining incomes, increasing unemployment, layoffs, loss of pension benefits, declining public services, and a steady decline in economic security. For the bankers on the level of Robert Rubin, it meant massive government bailouts and the lack of any criminal prosecutions after the subprime loan driven collapse of the banking industry in 2008. For the rest of us, it meant more unemployment and waves of foreclosures. If you don’t particularly like these things; if you believe as I do that the tradeoff of greater wealth and government-backed security for the very rich has not been worth the greater insecurity for the middle class and greater hardship for the poor, then you should be blaming conservative economic policies.
But the blame for these policies is bipartisan. They have been pursued by Democrats as well as by Republicans, and it’s time to start holding the Democrats accountable for their decisions. Don’t let the spectacle of republican wingnuts like Ted Cruz distract you. Clinton and Obama and far too many Congressional Democrats have pushed deregulation and austerity, and they need to be held accountable. Even after the collapse of the banking sector, there’s been hardly a peep from elected Democrats about the need to strengthen the social safety net or break up the too-big-to-fail banking conglomerates. The conversation is still all about how much we need to cut food stamps and social security.
The one exception to this behavior proves the point: Obamacare. This new law designed to increase the availability of health insurance and therefore increase ordinary Americans’ economic security has been compromised, fought, weakened, legally challenged, and filibustered since it first saw the light of day, back when Max Baucus was dragging his feet about every little reform and Barack Obama was preemptively compromising on major issues like single-payer and the public option before he was even pushed. And even now, after the law has been transformed into a mandated subsidy for the private health insurance industry, after several states have refused to participate in setting up state-level insurance exchanges, after the conservatives almost won their constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court, after brilliant neurosurgeon (and political hack) Ben Carson equated the law to slavery, and after Ted Cruz and his wingnut House allies shut down the federal government in opposition, the ACA is still the single example of any initiative by the Democrats to counter the right-wing mantra of cutting government support for this nation’s middle class and poor.
So who’s winning? The Republicans are, but that’s because the Democrats haven’t really cared to fight them. So let’s apportion the blame for the consequences appropriately. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, this means you.