Published on Saturday, October 14, 2006, by the Boston Globe
Cleaning Up The Mess
by Robert Kuttner
It now looks as if the Democrats could well take back at least one House of Congress, perhaps even two. But is this a fate to be wished on them?
I've heard smart people argue that George W. Bush has left such a mess that maybe the Democrats would be better off just letting the mess fall on the Republicans in 2008.
After all, there seems to be no good way out of Iraq. The administration dithered for nearly six years on Korea, and now we have Pyongyang with nukes, not to mention Iran's nuclear challenge. And the budget and trade deficits continue to be time bombs. Why should the opposition party want to share responsibility for these serial disasters?
I still think the 2006 mid-term election is well worth winning for the Democrats. But after the champagne is popped and ``Happy Days Are Here Again" is loudly sung, the victorious Democrats are likely to face a very sobering morning-after.
Begin with the budget deficit. As recent elections have shown, there is little political profit in being the fiscally responsible party. Democrats, once known as the Keynesian party of deficits, have led two thankless rounds of fiscal stewardship, cleaning up after Ronald Reagan's tax-cutting orgy in 1982-83, and then mopping up the red ink of Reagan's second term and that of Bush I with the heroic Budget Act of 1993, passed in both houses by a single vote.
But Bill Clinton and Al Gore got little credit for re positioning Democrats as the green-eyeshade party. When George W. Bush took office, he saw those hard-won budget surpluses as goodies for another bout of tax-cutting running into the trillions, mostly for the richest Americans. And now, primed to take back Congress, Democrats are set to play the thankless role of fiscal scold yet again.
In fact, it's even worse than that. By serving as the party that actually cares about budget balance, the Democrats play right into the hands of Republicans who brand Democrats as the party of high taxes. Although Democrats made sure in their 1993 budget program that higher taxes would be restored only on the wealthiest 2 percent, Republicans had a field day painting Democrats as the party that raises taxes.
If Democrats do take back Congress, they have a lot more heavy lifting to do beyond restoring fiscal responsibility. The normal functions of congressional oversight of the executive branch have collapsed during Republican control of both houses. Bush's allies in Congress protect the administration on everything from pre-9/11 intelligence to the dismal handling of Hurricane Katrina. Just restoring normal, arms-length oversight would be revolutionary.
A Democratic majority, even in one House, could begin to restrain the alarming designs of an imperial president. It could stem the assault on our civil liberties and the control of social and science policy by religious absolutists. A Democratic Senate would make it impossible for Bush, in his lame-duck term, to complete the takeover by the far-right of the Supreme Court.
These urgent needs are good reason for the opposition party to become the congressional majority. But Bush will continue to wield the veto pen. So even if Democrats can expose and block the most dangerous parts of the Bush agenda, it will be hard for Democrats to deliver an affirmative program.
Potentially, there is powerful politics in addressing the decline in living standards that plague so many middle- and working-class families. Productivity has nearly doubled in 30 years, but most of those gains have gone to the rich. The typical family faces housing and education costs rising faster than incomes, and insecurity of jobs, pensions, and healthcare.
Neither party right now is serious about changing this equation, because Bush's raid on the Treasury has deprived government of needed resources. Addressing these pocketbook frustrations will require the White House as well as Congress. And it will require a rollback of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, not just to balance the budget but to restore social spending.
In the meantime, the risk is that voters will see divided government as mere partisan squabbling rather than a principled contest for what kind of country America is to be. But nobody ever said politics was a cakewalk. If the Democrats do take back even one House, they can be thankful that the country has veered back from the precipice of despotism. Then the really hard work will begin.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe