Standing Athwart Progress
Barack Obama, in a spirit of bipartisanship, reached across the aisle and extended a hand. The Republican Party, almost en masse, responded by clenching their fists and hitting him in the mouth.
We played this whole game before, back in early 1993. As Bill Clinton came into office, the unemployment rate had been floating at about the 7 percent level. He put together a package of spending and tax increases on the upper brackets that made conservatives holler bloody murder. The phrase "the largest tax increase in American history" was in boldfaced type at the top of every sheet of talking points of every Republican to step in front of a microphone. Clinton's bill passed without a single Republican vote in either side of the Congress. Between that and the assault weapons ban, plus the general ennui on the Democratic side in the 1994 midterm elections, the GOP took over both houses and proceeded to aim for gridlock at every opportunity, to the point of shutting down the government in 1995.
The reason, of course, for all the squealing, is that most of the Clinton tax increases were aimed at the wealthiest Americans, who also have a disproportionate level of access to the national media. Ever since the Supreme Court declared that money essentially equals speech, we've learned that if you stick the rich with a pin, the squealing can be heard in China.
When the Republicans took over all three branches over government in 2001, George Bush and his party had the license to do every single thing they desired, from starting wars (which gave even more power to the executive) to funneling defense dollars to their friends (think Dick Cheney's friends at Halliburton and Blackwater) to skimming the contents of the federal treasury into the pockets of the rich via tax cut after tax cut after tax cut. Doesn't anyone recall how Bush made tax cuts sound like the panacea for every problem, from high gas prices to skyrocketing heating bills? To sweeten the deal for those in the lower tax bracket, he made sure to send out (relatively) piddling $300 checks to every taxpayer, to distract from the thousands of dollars in tax breaks going to the upper echelons. Before long, the $230 billion surplus that Clinton announced in 2000 had all but disappeared.
What you do in the start of an administration usually comes to fruition at the end of it, if a president is given two full terms. Bush had two full terms to push through as many tax breaks as he could, still blindly believing in Arthur Laffer's discredited trickle-down theory. Instead, all those tax cuts shoveled money into the hands of greedy speculators and financial Ponzi-artists determined to reap even greater and greater profits while pawning off as much of the risk as possible onto the government. Think of all the private industry fiascoes that floated around the Bushies over eight years: Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Jack Abramoff. And in the end, the lack of oversight over the financial industry ended up bringing us the giant real estate boom and bust, the collapse of brokerage houses like Merrill Lynch, and the mind-blowing chicanery of the Dickensian-named Bernie Madoff.
Now, here we stand at the brink, after the American people decisively made the call for change at the top, and the GOP leadership is comparing themselves as an opposition party to the Taliban, and turning every simple Senate vote into a 60-vote clash for cloture.
Republican star-wannabe Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina offered an amendment to the economic stimulus plan, composed of nothing but--you got it--tax cuts. Just a few of the hilarious provisions: permanently repeal the alternative minimum tax, which was designed so that the Leona Helmsleys of the world couldn't get away with paying no taxes at all; permanently keep capital gains and dividend taxes at a ludicrously low 15 percent, letting trust-fund babies living on inherited wealth and stocks pay the same rate as if they barely made any money at all; drop the estate tax rate to 15 percent for estates over $5 million and kill it completely for those under that level; lower the top marginal income tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent; create only two other tax brackets after that, at 15 and 10 percent, respectively; and lower the corporate tax rate from 35 to 25 percent.
You and I might look at this proposal as you might look at the two-week-old packet of peanut butter crackers in your office snack machine; with skepticism and disgust. Senate Republicans, however, voted for it in a giant pack--only five of them declined to vote for it.
When William F. Buckley fomented the start of the conservative movement in the 1950s in his seminal magazine National Review, he claimed that the job of the conservative was "standing athwart history yelling Stop." It is not history the Republicans are aiming to derail at this critical moment, but progress. With luck, this time history will mow them down along with the bad ideas they've clung to for almost 30 years. It's time.
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