2012-01-13 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

This Time, It Counts
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Republican primary campaign is the big political story of the season as the media and interested bystanders watch the players test their game in anticipation of taking on the big guy in the White House. Mitt Romney, really yesterday’s guy (he was edged out in his race for the White House four years ago by John McCain), has been the moderate, if somewhat bland, lead contender. But he hasn’t got a clear field, having failed so far to excite the generally conservative Republican base.

From early primary season dropout and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, to Iowa Straw Poll winner Michelle Bachmann who lost dramatically in the subsequent Iowa caucuses, forcing her to withdraw shortly afterwards, to Herman Cain the Georgia businessman turned politician who wowed the GOP electorate only to flame out in scandal, to the halting debate performance of Texas Governor Rick Perry, to the short-lived surge of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, to today’s top challenger, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, this primary season’s churned up lots of choices but little to electrify Republican primary voters.

Nor has it dazzled voters generally who seem to long for charisma above all else – in substance if not in style. Even the increasingly cranky libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul, who has a hard core of support among committed libertarian idealists, hasn’t injected much excitement into the campaign – except for the possibility he might run as a spoiler on a third party ticket, thereby splitting the antiincumbent vote and handing the win to the White House’s current occupant.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama waits them out, building his campaign war chest, crafting his strategy and firing up his own base with increasingly partisan rhetoric and policy decisions.

From delaying an oil pipeline that would have brought new jobs and Canadian oil into the U.S. market, thereby helping alleviate our overseas energy dependence, to making “recess” appointments while Congress wasn’t actually in recess – a move he would have decried if made by a Republican administration when he was in opposition (in fact he did decry it) – to cutting our military while leaving entitlements intact and denouncing Republicans for their concern over the unwieldy budget deficit his policies have fostered, this president’s positioned himself to run hard and strong against whoever emerges from the bruising primary struggle.

We choose a president every four years in this country and it always matters. But this time it matters more. President Obama won the White House against a backdrop of national problems that had suddenly exploded decades of solid economic performance which began in the Reagan years. He swept to power with an historic Democratic majority in Congress to back him, only to give us two years of legislation aimed at fundamentally altering the nation. The president told Republicans who protested his spending blowout that “elections had consequences.” He was right. They do.

Counting on his massive majorities in Congress in those first two years, the president saw little reason to compromise or seek consensus and forged ahead with policies and laws that lacked a broad national consensus. Indeed, neither he nor Democratic leaders in Congress even seemed to care in the wake of national polls showing broad dissatisfaction with their signature health care bill. That turned out to be a mistake because the elections of 2010 turned the tables on Congressional Democrats by handing Republicans an historic win, replacing the overwhelming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives with a Republican one while significantly eroding Democratic control of the Senate. But Democrats, and especially the president, didn’t get that message.

That’s why the president today continues his slash and burn politics by demonizing his Republican opponents while pressing for even stronger implementation of the policies he and his allies in Congress forced through the system in those first two years of his administration. Obama’s a man with great charm and a soothing and nuanced voice who can sound like the very soul of reason when he wants to. But his actions, not his words, are what finally matter and his actions have been anything but soothing, nuanced and reasonable. Unlike prior Democratic and Republican presidents he hasn’t reached out to members of the opposition and sought common ground (though he’s often sounded that very message). Bill Clinton in the nineties famously “triangulated” to work with both sides of the aisle and so ace two terms for himself and is now remembered for a mostly successful presidency despite the scandals which finally tarnished his reputation. Barack Obama is certainly no less capable than Clinton was and, in some ways, he seems more so. He seems more principled, too, precisely because of his refusal to compromise as Clinton did – though his tendency to speak as if he will, while persistently choosing not to, takes some of the luster off his words. Men of principle tend to do as they say and it’s hard to see how the president’s pledges to work with Congress fit that bill when he invariably declines to meet the opposition leadership in the middle.

His supporters will give him a pass, of course, since what he does is what matters to them. They won’t mind awfully if he gulls enough of the electorate with words of moderation if they enable him to keep on doing what he’s doing. But maybe the rest of us should care. In 2008 Americans made a choice in the face of a financial implosion that was wracking the American system. But instead of a president prepared to restore us to fiscal sanity we got one bent on turning us into Europe. Across the Atlantic we can already see where that road leads as the entitlement bloc of E.U. nations struggles to find the funds to bail themselves out of a fiscal hole of their own making. Europe may not be the same for decades. Or centuries. But our current president wants us to be like them.

There are, of course, plenty of Americans who agree. They genuinely believe that enriching government entitlements by dunning those with more, while shrinking defense and borrowing whatever it takes to make up the difference can just go on forever with few or no consequences to themselves.

That’s what the Europeans believed, too. Barack Obama asked us to trust him with the stewardship of this nation in 2008 and we took a flyer on him. But in 2012, with the costs and impact of the unaffordable bills he pushed for and signed into law during his first term set to come due, and the likelihood of additional judicial appointments by the president, including Supreme Court justices, he wants us to seal that deal.

If he’s re-elected, it won’t matter if there’s a Republican majority in both houses of Congress because a president has veto power, absent a twothirds Congressional majority to override it. And the world is becoming increasingly unstable as this president’s policies of diminishing America’s international role continue to open the field for other, less savory aspirants to global power.

In 2008 the nation bet on the Democrats and got a spending blowout, a faltering economic recovery and a shrinking America for its trouble.

The upcoming presidential election in 2012 is the last chance the country may have to halt this downhill slide. Voters can choose to continue down the road Barack Obama is taking us or they can make a much needed course correction.

What they do in the voting booths this time will lock us in place for generations. This one counts.

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