It’s often said in Washington that Republicans are better in opposition than at governing and the past two years have borne out this observation with a vengeance. It sure looks like it’s been fun being a Republican. The economy was terrible and the other guys were in charge.
Even though it was mostly the Republicans who messed up the economy in the first place and who started the wars that neither former US president George W. Bush nor (probably) US President Barack Obama will really and truly be able to count in the win column, they knew that they could rely on US citizens to forget that over time — and forget they did. All they had to do was sit back and throw darts.
Into the bargain, and probably to the great surprise of many of them, the “Tea Party” movement erupted out of the rage of some at the government and at their fellow citizens who took out mortgages they couldn’t quite afford.
The media often write about the tension between Tea Party insurgents and establishment Republicans and it’s there. However, mostly the movement has been as pennies from heaven for the Grand Old Party: You have a bunch of extremists running around comparing the Democratic president to Hitler and Stalin. If they go too far, you can gently denounce them, but mostly, you just let them carry on with their wild analogies, which work their way into the civic bloodstream but for which you do not get blamed. It’s been a great racket.
However, now the times they are a-changing. Having taken control of the US House of Representatives as of Wednesday, Republicans now have to govern. They have to do things like make a budget. And not just a fake budget, like in a campaign, but a real budget, that adds up, more or less. They have to negotiate with a US Senate still in Democratic hands over the final shape of appropriations to the various US federal agencies. All that sounds suspiciously like hard work and Washington Republicans, for all their thumpety-thump rhetoric about hard work and personal initiative and so on, are largely lazy and unserious people. They won’t do the work, and in two years, it will show.
How can I say that? Alas, recent history bears it out. When I say lazy I don’t mean that they fail to arise from bed. They manage that. I mean intellectually lazy and yes, unserious. Let’s look at the last three Republican presidents, going back to 1980. In that time, Republicans have been screaming about the budget deficit. So what did they actually do to fix it? Former US president Ronald Reagan opened up a gaping hole, which was somewhat repaired from its worst point by the time he left office but was still far larger than that of his predecessor Jimmy Carter. On the whole, Reagan lost the US US$81 billion. Think that’s a lot? Former US president George H.W. Bush cost the country US$135 billion. Think that’s a lot? His son cost the US — get ready — US$632 billion. Former US president Bill Clinton, meanwhile, made the country US$526 billion.
Most liberals call this hypocrisy and it is that. However, it’s something even worse than hypocrisy. It’s a complete and utter lack of seriousness about governing. Hypocrisy is, at the end of the day, just an allegation about character. However, that combined US$848 billion they’ve added to the deficit: that’s real money and they don’t do a thing about it, really. They yell and scream that it’s all the Democrats’ fault. A little of it is, but most of it is the fault of the massive tax cuts Republicans have pushed through, which have left revenues and expenditures wildly out of balance.
Failures to cut spending on the domestic front largely reflect the wishes of the US people, who call themselves conservative in theory, but who, in practice, want to see the government spend money on entitlement benefits, education, environmental protection and so on. Republicans secretly know this and respond to it. They had the run of every branch of government in the early 2000s and what did they do with it? They increased spending and expanded Medicare.
They’re not serious people. They’re great at theater. We all know that. They will open the new session of the House of Representatives over which they now preside with a public reading of the full text of the US Constitution, taking turns (I wonder who gets to read the bit about slaves counting as three-fifths of a person?) That’s excellent PR. They are also matchless at their little rhetorical ornamentations, like “death tax” (estate taxes) and “death panels” (which did not exist).
However, running the country? They’ve shown almost no aptitude for it for many years. The reason is simple and was imperishably expressed by the academic Alan Wolfe in an essay he wrote four years ago: “Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”
Obama has not on the whole been a commanding and decisive leader so far. However, his fate is still leashed chiefly to the economy and if it’s still tottering in two years’ time, he will suffer for it. So I can’t say with confidence yet how he’ll be positioned as November 2012 approaches. I can say this, however: It’s highly likely that after watching Republicans for the next two years, a majority of the US will conclude that Obama is the only grown-up in the room.
Michael Tomasky is editor-at-large at Guardian America.
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