The Boogeyman is dead, and Santa is dying.
The Republicans have been, since the 1930s, the party of the Boogeyman. They led the fear-based crusades against Communists, first with the Blacklist, then Joe McCarthy’s hearings, then the twin fears of Communist Mao and the Communist USSR. With the death of the Soviet Union, and the corporate embrace of still-Communist China, 9/11 let them turn their fears to “radical Islam.”
But when President Obama killed Bin Laden, it took the steam out of their movement. And to make matters worse, Obama had earlier gone to Egypt and said, in essence, “Tear down these dictators!” – helping spark the Arab Spring and totally deflating the Republican fear machine, which now sputters along on the fringes trembling about Bachmann’s gays, Santorum’s fertilized eggs, and Perry’s immigrants. The likelihood of Mormon Romney’s presidential candidacy means they can’t even add “God” to their traditional “Gays, Guns, and God” trinity of GOP fears.
Without something or someone to be afraid of, the Republicans are truly lost, wandering in the wilderness. And no matter how hard they try to gin up fear of the “dreaded deficit bomb,” it just doesn’t make Americans jump the way the USSR’s nukes did two generations ago, or 9/11 did a decade ago. So now they’re trying to whip up fear of the Occupy Wall Street folks, but so far OWS has the sympathy of average Americans; it’s just not working for the Republicans.
But the Democrats aren’t doing much better.
Back in 1976, Republican strategist Jude Wanniski invented the phrase “supply side economics” and then proposed his famous “Two Santa Clauses theory” to sell it.
Democrats, he said, had always been the party of Santa – bearing gifts to the American people like unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, the 40-hour workweek, safe workplaces, clean air and water, and the minimum wage. What the American people needed, they got – and they got it from the Democrats playing the role of Santa.
The Republicans, Wanniski pointed out, had always been the anti-Santa party, saying “No” to virtually every single “Santa gift” Democrats wanted to give to the American people, for over a century.
But, Wanniski reasoned, if the Republicans could become Santas themselves – give the American people an annual gift – and at the same time could force the Democrats to stop being Santas (in Wanniski’s words, “force the Democrats to shoot Santa”), then the Democrats would be neutralized and Republicans could win elections.
His strategy was simple, and picked up virtually from Day One by the Reagan administration in 1981: When Republicans are in the White House, cut taxes dramatically (particularly on the rich, but talk about the tax cuts to working people), while also jacking up spending to bubble-stimulate the economy and make it look like the good times are flowing. And when Democrats are in the White House, block all tax increase and spending measures while screaming hysterically about the “debt bomb,” forcing austerity and economic pain for everyday Americans.
Reagan dutifully ran up more debt in 8 years than every president from George Washington to Jimmy Carter – combined. And he spent those borrowed trillions, which bubble-pumped the economy and made people think he had some wonder-cure economic patent-medicine.
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Herbert Walker Bush followed Reagan’s lead, adding trillions more to the debt and throwing in a war for good effort.
When Clinton came in, the “Debt Bomb!” screams began, so Clinton dutifully shot the Santa Claus of “welfare as we know it” and kneecapped “the era of big government.”
George W. Bush put Wanniski’s program on steroids, giving the most massive Republican Santa tax-cut for billionaires in history, while borrowing almost $6 trillion and spending it all so fast, stretching the bubble so hard, that it actually popped in the last year of his presidency.
For three decades, Wanniski’s strategy has worked brilliantly for Republicans and their rich donors, with the added bonus of largely wiping out the once-politically-active and pesky unionized middle class. Three Republican presidents ran the nation’s debt up to such incredibly high levels that President Obama is now talking about shooting Santa Claus – this time, cutting Medicare and other benefits.
But Wanniski hadn’t figured on the collapse of the USSR when he put forth his theory, so now both parties are politically impotent. Republicans can’t convince Americans to be terrified anymore, given that Obama’s pretty handily (and cheaply) chopped the head off Al Queda, the Republican’s most recent boogeyman. And Democrats can’t play Santa Claus any more because the Republicans ran up so much debt, and taxes are so low, there’s no way to get enough money to revive Santa.
It’s going to make for a fascinating electoral season, as Republicans try to gin back up any fear card they can find because, to their chagrin, nobody’s really all that afraid anymore of gays, communists, or Muslims. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to revive Santa Claus, but Republicans in the House and Senate are successfully blocking their efforts to raise the taxes on rich people and corporations necessary to bring Santa back to life.
So – at least for the moment – it’s dueling straw men.
Republicans are telling their base the next boogeyman is “Occupy Wall Street,” and using GOP TV (aka “Fox News”) and a well-funded punditocracy to push out the message. Democrats are repeatedly – but unsuccessfully – bringing before Congress proposals to revive Santa, with unemployment insurance extensions; jobs for infrastructure, teachers, and cops; and free healthcare for the growing class of the working poor via Medicare. But the American people – at least so far – actually like the OWS movement (even Republicans!), and the last election stripped Obama of the electoral advantage needed to actually pass Santa Claus legislation.
Which is why the electorate seems largely asleep, and political discussions seem vapid.
Barring another attack on America before November 2012, or the OWS movement turning violent, Republicans have lost their boogeyman. And so long as Tea Party control of the House of Representatives remains unbroken, Democrats have lost access to their Santa Claus.
Wanniski and Reagan are dead, but their legacy – and strategy – lives on…