GOP acts out revenge fantasy

February 22nd, 2011

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

The orgy of budget cutting on the House floor last week was not about the deficit. It was about ideology.

The House Republican majority acted out a revenge fantasy against President Barack Obama and the Democrats in retaliation for what they see as the left-wing ideological aggression of the last two years. They are the counterrevolution.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s incoming chief of staff, said in 2008. “What I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” That was a signal to conservatives: The Democrats intended to use the financial crisis as a pretext to carry out a liberal revolution.

What unfolded was the conservatives’ worst nightmare: a huge increase in government spending justified as an economic stimulus plan, government bailouts, health care reform, more federal regulation of business and finance. All passed by Democrats on a nearly straight party-line vote.

Now House Republicans aim to reduce federal spending to what it was in 2008, when George W. Bush was president — before the Democratic takeover. Their mission is to obliterate all traces of Obama and the Democratic Congress.

Republicans insist that they are just addressing the nation’s deficit crisis. They scoff at Obama for failing to show bold leadership in the face of impending disaster. The president argues that massive spending cuts on the scale the Republicans are proposing are likely to endanger the fragile economic recovery. His budget includes a far more cautious five-year spending freeze.

“Weakness! Timidity!” Republicans complain. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie asked a Washington audience last week, “Will our children and grandchildren be able to say that at this moment of crisis, we stood up and did the hard things that made a future of greatness possible for them?”

But Republicans refuse to talk about one “hard thing” — higher taxes. Which suggests their real problem is not the deficit. It’s government spending.

Many of the programs targeted for big cuts by the House Republicans have a suspiciously ideological tinge: Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, funds to implement the new health care reform law, National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, money for a White House climate change czar. The Washington Post calls the House budget “an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities.’’

The public is certainly worried about the deficit. But do people believe the deficit is a crisis demanding immediate and radical action? That’s not so clear.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken this month, the public was split over whether the federal government’s priority should be reducing the deficit (49 percent) or spending to help the economic recovery (46 percent). What economic issue worries people the most? Jobs tops the list (44 percent). Fewer than half that say the deficit (19 percent).

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country. The crisis is jobs. So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

“We will not stop here in our efforts to cut spending,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said after last week’s budget vote. “Not when we’re broke and Washington’s spending binge is making it harder to create jobs.”

The counterrevolution is the mirror image of the revolution. The budget bill passed the House last week on a nearly straight party-line vote: 235 Republicans for it, 186 Democrats and three Republicans against it. (Two of the GOP naysayers thought the cuts didn’t go far enough).

When Democrats passed the economic stimulus and health care bills, they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. If the counterrevolutionaries want to undo the Obama legacy, they will have to do it the same way: with one-party government.

But they don’t have that in Washington. Republicans do not control the Senate or the White House. They do have total control in 20 states, where both houses of the state legislature have Republican majorities and the governor is a Republican. One of those states is Wisconsin — now the epicenter of the counterrevolution.

In Wisconsin, Democrats claim that a law proposed by Gov. Scott Walker to deal with the state’s budget crisis has a hidden right-wing agenda. Obama called the Wisconsin bill “an assault on unions.” The president of the National Education Association called it “a politically motivated attack.”

Wisconsin union leaders say they are willing to accept cuts to tackle the state’s budget crisis. But that’s not good enough for Walker. “What Gov. Walker is trying to do amounts to political thuggery,” former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) told Talking Points Memo. “He’s using [the budget crisis] as an excuse to gut the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. In my view, that’s outrageous.”

So the minority Wisconsin Democrats are resorting to obstruction tactics — just like the minority Republicans did in Washington in 2009 and 2010. The Washington Republicans filibustered. The Wisconsin Democrats fled the state, to prevent a quorum in the state senate.

The Republican counterrevolution was spearheaded by the tea party movement, which started as a spontaneous conservative protest against the Obama agenda in early 2009. So what are we seeing in Wisconsin? A liberal backlash against the counterrevolution. Spontaneous? The public employee unions are organizing it, and the Democratic National Committee is helping to coordinate it.

But a lot of the protesters in Madison are liberals angry at the prospect of a GOP counterrevolution. One woman protester sounded like a tea party activist when she shouted at a TV news camera, “We are the people and our voices must be heard!”

Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington dream of taking over the Senate and the White House next year. Then they will get their shot at one-party government.

We are experiencing a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating. So far, the liberal revolution has produced a conservative counterrevolution. This counterrevolution is now drawing liberal protests. Those protests are drawing conservative counter-protests from the tea party. Where will it all end?

Only with a full economic recovery. If the economy is booming and people are making lots of money, they just might stop and ask, “What is it we used to be so angry about?”

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country. The crisis is jobs. So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

“We will not stop here in our efforts to cut spending,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said after last week’s budget vote. “Not when we’re broke and Washington’s spending binge is making it harder to create jobs.”

The counterrevolution is the mirror image of the revolution. The budget bill passed the House last week on a nearly straight party-line vote: 235 Republicans for it, 186 Democrats and three Republicans against it. (Two of the GOP naysayers thought the cuts didn’t go far enough).

When Democrats passed the economic stimulus and health care bills, they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. If the counterrevolutionaries want to undo the Obama legacy, they will have to do it the same way: with one-party government.

But they don’t have that in Washington. Republicans do not control the Senate or the White House. They do have total control in 20 states, where both houses of the state legislature have Republican majorities and the governor is a Republican. One of those states is Wisconsin — now the epicenter of the counterrevolution.

In Wisconsin, Democrats claim that a law proposed by Gov. Scott Walker to deal with the state’s budget crisis has a hidden right-wing agenda. Obama called the Wisconsin bill “an assault on unions.” The president of the National Education Association called it “a politically motivated attack.”

Wisconsin union leaders say they are willing to accept cuts to tackle the state’s budget crisis. But that’s not good enough for Walker. “What Gov. Walker is trying to do amounts to political thuggery,” former Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) told Talking Points Memo. “He’s using [the budget crisis] as an excuse to gut the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively. In my view, that’s outrageous.”

So the minority Wisconsin Democrats are resorting to obstruction tactics — just like the minority Republicans did in Washington in 2009 and 2010. The Washington Republicans filibustered. The Wisconsin Democrats fled the state, to prevent a quorum in the state senate.

The Republican counterrevolution was spearheaded by the tea party movement, which started as a spontaneous conservative protest against the Obama agenda in early 2009. So what are we seeing in Wisconsin? A liberal backlash against the counterrevolution. Spontaneous? The public employee unions are organizing it, and the Democratic National Committee is helping to coordinate it.

But a lot of the protesters in Madison are liberals angry at the prospect of a GOP counterrevolution. One woman protester sounded like a tea party activist when she shouted at a TV news camera, “We are the people and our voices must be heard!”

Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington dream of taking over the Senate and the White House next year. Then they will get their shot at one-party government.

We are experiencing a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating. So far, the liberal revolution has produced a conservative counterrevolution. This counterrevolution is now drawing liberal protests. Those protests are drawing conservative counter-protests from the tea party. Where will it all end?

Only with a full economic recovery. If the economy is booming and people are making lots of money, they just might stop and ask, “What is it we used to be so angry about?”

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.