2010-01-15 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

A New Day, Or More Of The Same?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

With the outgoing and endlessly embattled Bush administration showing signs of exhaustion and an unforeseen financial crisis shaking the nation’s confidence, Democrats came roaring back in 2008 to win the presidency with the cool and captivating Barack Obama. Along the way they gained an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives and 60 veto-proof seats in the Senate thanks to a disputed election in Minnesota putting television comedian Al Franken over the top in a controversial recount, and including Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders and Connecticut Independent-Democrat Joe Lieberman. Back from the political wilderness, the new governing majority proceeded to make up for lost time.

Since the Reagan years, Democrats had been on the defensive. But the lines had blurred in the nineties, when President Bill Clinton had tacked right (under pressure from a Republican-led Congress) and, later, when his successor, George W. Bush, tacked left in favor of bigger spending in hopes of broadening his political appeal. But Democrats in Congress, embittered over their narrow loss in the 2000 presidential sweepstakes to Bush (who most Democrats figured wasn’t fit to shine Al Gore’s Guccis), weren’t in a peaceful mood and Bush’s moves to find common ground went nowhere while paving the way for eventual Republican collapse as Republicans in Congress forgot they were supposed to be for fiscal responsibility. American didn’t forget. Or forgive.

Now, entering 2010, with Democrats roaring round the bend of their first full year in charge of everything, there’s a hard wall of voter expectation and disappointment looming directly ahead of them. If Republicans were big spenders in their latter years of power in Washington, the new guys on the block have put them to shame. While the Bush administration pushed through an unpopular bailout to save the major financial institutions, the Democrats have doubled and tripled down, blowing the nation’s budget sky high with auto industry takeovers, ineffective stimulus spending, and a health care bill that will massively expand government entitlements. With this kind of deficit spending, we face fiscal ruin. Democrats, in their years in the political wilderness, used to say they cared about the deficit. But it’s all been forgotten in the wake of their return to Washington’s corridors of power.

Although the new health care legislation the Democrats are pressing is supposed to be deficit neutral, no one other than its partisan supporters seriously believes that. And it’s questionable if they believe it either. Will America’s seniors, a significant percent age of the overall voting population, stand for the kind of service reductions real savings will likely require when the time comes? Will the young, who often don’t carry health insurance (needing it less than other voters), start buying insurance as they’ll be required to do under new govern ment mandates (which may actually prove unconstitutional if challenged in court)? Will Americans happily ante up to pay a slew of new taxes to sustain this latest government behemoth? And will the alleged waste in Medicare really be wrung out of that program when no one in Wash ing ton has managed to muster the poli tical will to do it since the program began?

And, all this while, few are talking about the swelling deficit still threatening existing entitlement programs, with Medicare and Social Security set to go belly up when demographics change and there are more program users to be supported by fewer working stiffs. Without a real effort to address already looming fiscal imbalances, healthcare reform will only be the latest in a long line of newly instituted Demo cratic budget bust ers that hamstring and hamper American economic growth and prosperity. American voters finally seem to be noticing.

The great tension that always exists between voter passion for government largesse and the resistance to paying for it is starting to shift again. But the Republican brand had fallen so far and so fast, and the presidential charm emanating from the White House had seemed so powerful, that Democrats believed they were impervious to serious erosion of power so early on in the political cycle. They had waited a long time, after all, to have their wishes for government expansion finally fulfilled.

All those years wandering in the Reagan-created wilderness and then the great disappointment of a triangulating Clinton administration which talked the liberal talk but so often declined to walk the walk! And that squeaker of a loss to an awkward Republican with a twang from Texas in cowboy boots! After eight years of angry partisanship, the national mood finally shifted in their favor and long suffering Democrats weren’t about to let this opportunity slip through their fingers. How could they be expected to wait and focus on building coalitions and consensus, when there was so much to be done, so much lost time to be made up by ramming through programs they had only dreamed of these many years past?

With Americans once more becoming acutely aware of why they used to prefer Republicans, who claimed to be the fiscally responsible party, over Democrats who spoke the language of balanced budgets only when out of power, the looming elections of 2010 present an unexpected challenge to the current majority – and a choice. Democrats can keep pushing, budgets and public opinion be damned, or they can ratchet back and await a turn in the public mood. In Congress Democrats are already looking with trepidation toward next November’s political contests as many of their longest running incumbents suddenly decide to step down in the wake of two Republican statehouse wins in 2009 (Virginia and New Jersey) and rising voter disaffection showing up in the polls. They seem to have made their choice and it’s to go for broke.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is on record as saying she’s prepared to give up 40 seats in Congress to get Health Care through (evidence of the oversized majority American voters handed Democrats in 2008). Rather than back away in his support, Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, hounded by scandal and his own tanking poll numbers, has decided to retire after this term, eliminating the need to worry about reelection after voting for a health care bill most Amerians, and certainly a good many of his constituents, don’t want (and yielding to party pressure to step aside in favor of a Democratic candidate with fewer negatives, to boot). North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan is doing the same.

In true blue Massachusetts, Democrats are getting yet another wake-up call as Massachusetts State Attorney General, and Democratic political star, Martha Coakley, loping to an easy win in her bid to replace deceased Senator Edward M. Kennedy in a state with a 3:1 Democratic advantage, suddenly found herself in a horse race with little known Republican state legislator Scott Brown running hard against the Democrats’ health care legislation in a special election. In Nevada, Democratic Senator and majority leader Harry Reid, head honcho on the Demo crats’ health care reform package, is polling badly against all prospective Republican challengers and could be on the verge of retirement himself.

Is the message getting through? Hardly, as Democrats redouble their efforts to get health care while the gettin’ is good. But Republicans are finally hopeful again. Shoved into minority status in the last national elections, and kept on the margins by Democrats, they’ve pretty much stuck to - gether, resisting the current Demo - cratic lunge over the fiscal cliff. But it doesn’t look like they can stop it, given the current massive legislative imbalance in favor of the Democrats. The best they can hope is to build a majority to undo the damage should American voters decide to trust them again.

But if that’s to happen, Republicans will have to find their footing – and their message. The current state of contention between some Republican players and their own party chair, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, is an unfortunate example of business-as-usual despite the absence of powerful and articulate spokespersons for a new Republican vision on the national stage. A party that was cast out by voters who no longer trusted them to live up to their own promises needs to recall that voter unease with Democrats isn’t a guarantee of their own resurgence. Voters still love getting “free” stuff and it sometimes takes a while for the real costs to hit them.

It wasn’t until the malaise of the seventies that the excesses of the previous decade were finally recognized after all – and not until the eighties that voters finally focused on fixing the problem. Republicans need to remember there’s no guarantee voters will dance to their tune now, so early in this cycle, if their message remains too muted, too discordant or wanders too far off-key. rockirreg@aol.com

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