Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Showing the White Flag

We Democrats commonly complain that, whatever we do, Republicans accuse us of being weak on security. Thus, although President Obama has launched many more strikes at the Taliban in Pakistan than the Bush administration, the GOPhers still claim that he is not strong enough in fighting terrorism.

There is merit in this complaint--the shameless Republicans, unfettered by any attachment to mere truth, engage in demagogy whenever it will benefit what they see as their political interest. What we Democrats ignore, however, is that we are their enablers. The truth is that, although we are not weak on security, we are weak on so many issues that our posture gives Republicans credibility even when they lie outrageously.

Case in point: Republicans tried to distract attention from the disaster area that the economy became on George Bush's watch by raising the volume on their constant wail about the deficit and the need to cut taxes. They found allies in some anti-government tea partiers--people who don't believe government can do anything. Some feckless 'Democrats' got scared and started talking about the need to rein in the deficit. Fourteen months after the Republicans were vanquished with their tails between their legs, that view has become the conventional wisdom.

Now is exactly the wrong time to worry about the deficit. The economy has just started--maybe--to recover from Bush's disaster. Unemployment is high and stubbornly resistant to improvement. Big banks are paying huge bonuses, but not lending. As Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz (two Nobel laureates) and other economists have convincingly argued, what we need now is another big stimulus package, replacing the absence of private demand with public demand.

Yet we are now told that President Obama is going to call for freezing the non-defense part of the budget for three years. WHAT IS HE THINKING? That is a recipe for economic stagnation and political disaster. It plays into the Republicans' hands. Remember, the GOP has no interest in economic recovery; continued distress will play into Republican hands this fall and in 2012.

What the President should do tomorrow night is to stand in the well of the House and give the Republicans (and their Democratic enablers) hell. He should tell them some home truths about where we are and how the only path out of our distress is muscular government spending, because private enterprise is cowering in the bunkers. He needs to say that while the deficit is a real problem, in the present crisis it has to take a back seat to repairing the economy. In short, he needs to stand his ground--or what should be his ground.

Since Vietnam, Democrats have, unfortunately, become all too practiced at showing the white flag when opposed by tough and outwardly confident Republicans. Democrats cut and ran after Walter Mondale told the truth about taxes and got skunked in 1984--even though they knew he was right. Think of the Republican Lite years of the Clinton administration. What did Bill Clinton stand tough on, except when he, himself, was under attack? Think of how Democrats knuckled under to Bush's demand for unconstitutional powers in the so-called War on Terror. Even now, where is the prominent Democrat willing to stand up and say that dangerous terrorists must be released, because the Bush administration so traduced our Constitution that we cannot hold them?

One thing about Republicans: they don't act this way. They show matchless effrontery in maintaining their refrain about cutting taxes. That would be incredibly stupid and self-destructive as national policy, but at least the Republicans are consistent. They don't bend, they don't show fear. And as a result, they get credit for consistency, if nothing else.

We need to learn from our enemies. In Esther Forbes' wonderful Johnny Tremain, the patriot James Otis says on the eve of the American Revolution that Americans must fight for "the right to stand up." We won that right. It's past time for Democrats to exercise it.

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