By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Wednesday, September 15, 2010;
Will the 2010 election campaign provide us with a debate worthy of a great nation in trouble? The early harbingers aren't good. The pundit herd has already declared the election over, with only the scope of the Democratic reverses yet in question. The two parties are gearing up for a fierce debate on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone including the wealthiest 2 percent or merely to everyone except the very rich.
We can't afford this partisan posturing. Fifteen million Americans are unemployed. Poverty is up. One in four homes is under water, worth less than what is owed on it. Voters deserve a serious debate about what is to be done. And what are the choices that the two parties present?
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the perpetually tanned Republican leader, has laid out the Republican plan: Keep tax rates where they are and cut $100 billion in spending next year. This can only add rubble to the ruins.
Beyond that, Republicans have no common plan other than obstruction. Their default position is defined by the special interests that have long dominated Washington. As former Bush speech writer David Frum noted, "Republicans have done insufficient serious policy work over the past half-dozen years. The legacy of this inactivity is a party on the brink of power, lacking an intellectual framework for the use of that power."
Boehner, the country club denizen who first came to national attention handing out checks from the tobacco lobby on the floor of the Congress, personifies that posture. When Congress took up regulation of the big banks, Boehner rallied bank lobbyists to oppose it. Not surprisingly, when he started a Boehner for Speaker fund, among the first big checks came one from Citigroup. What is the Democratic alternative? The president recently found his voice in speeches in Milwaukee, Cleveland and in last week's White House news conference. He powerfully summarized Republican adherence to the failed ideas that drove us into the ditch, contrasting the "governing philosophy" between the two parties. He scored Republicans for holding extension of middle-class tax cuts "hostage" to sustaining tax breaks for millionaires and argued for a government that stands on the side of working people.
When it came to what needed to be done for the economy, the president sensibly offered an appetizer of $50 billion for rebuilding roads, rails and runways and developing an infrastructure investment bank that could leverage private investment as well. But his main course was a bouillabaisse of business tax cuts. Some of the tax proposals were threadbare Democratic campaign staples -- ending the tax breaks for companies that ship jobs abroad. Some were routine -- making the research-and-development tax cut permanent. Some were simply lame -- the 100 percent depreciation for corporate investment in 2011, which will waste billions subsidizing investments that companies would have made anyway. All were designed for electoral positioning.
But even if passed, these proposals aren't anywhere near what needs to be done to reshape the economy and put people to work. Obama has been eloquent on this in the past. In his Georgetown University "Sermon on the Mount" speech last year, he argued that we can't recover to the old economy that was built on debt and bubbles -- and should not want to. We have to build a "new foundation" for the economy with investment in world-class education, in research and development, in a 21st-century infrastructure. Transition to new sources of energy will help secure a lead in the green industrial revolution. Curbing financial speculation and balancing our trade, so we make things in America once more, are essential. To enact this project, Washington will have to free itself from the destructive grip of powerful corporate lobbies.
This agenda is both good policy and a powerful political message. It provides a context for what Obama has done to date -- from the recovery plan to financial reform -- and the case for staying the course.
The current toxic political environment, the 24/7 attack media and expensive modern campaign tactics, all favor gotcha politics, not a serious debate on the country's direction. Not surprisingly, both parties now vie to make the election a referendum on the other: Republicans on the "failed Obama economy," Democrats on the "failed Republican ideas that got us into this ditch."
Given their idea vacuum, such a referendum may be a good strategy for Republicans, but it is counterproductive for Democrats. While the president's emergency measures staved off collapse, they haven't created the jobs or the renewed economy we need. He needs to put forth a compelling argument about what we've learned from the halting growth experienced thus far, and what we need to do now. If the Democratic call is stay the course, it would be helpful for voters to be clear about just what that course is.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.