POLITICS MARCH 4, 2013
The sequestration impasse is so obviously the Republicans' fault that the punditocracy, which can't abide an obvious and unchanging story line, is trying hard to invent a new one that blames President Obama. Bob Woodward says it was Obama's fault for inventing the sequester, which misses some crucial context. Dean Baker says it's Obama's fault for positioning himself as a budget hawk. Bill Keller says it's Obama's fault for not positioning himself as a budget hawk. And so on.
Rather than spin ever-more-rococo theories about who's to blame, these domes would do better to think about how the current alignment of the two parties makes the sequestration problem so very difficult to solve. I submit that the obstacle is that the Democrats haven't moved far enough to the left. My argument here isn't ideological (though I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a more liberal Democratic Party). It's tactical.
To understand why Democrats must move further left, let's consider why Republicans are so intransigent. Richard W. Stevenson had a good piece in the New York Times mapping the problem from the Republican point of view. The GOP is struggling to figure out what it stands for. Being the anti-immigration party isn't working. Being the anti-gay-marriage party isn't working. Being the party that says you can't get pregnant from being raped isn't working. And, as Sam Tanenhaus noted recently in The New Republic, being the party of white people isn't working.
All the GOP has left, Stevenson argued, is to be the party that shrinks government. That's not quite right. Very little in the GOP's behavior during the past three decades (as opposed to its rhetoric) indicates that cutting government spending is a high priority for Republicans. Real government spending per capita at all levels of government increased much faster under George W. Bush than it did under Bill Clinton or President Obama. Ronald Reagan increased federal spending by 22 percent in constant dollars; Obama has thus far increased federal spending by 19 percent, and virtually all that increase occurred during Obama's first year, when the financial crisis necessitated a large spending increase (much of it at the prompting not of Obama but of Bush).
The GOP isn't the party of smaller government. It's the party of lower taxes. Opposing tax increases and legislating tax cuts is its numbskull heart and soul.
With an aging population, an enormous budget deficit, and three decades behind us (Robert Samuelson would say four) in which we consistently kept taxes too low to cover federal spending, lower taxes isn't an option for this country. It just isn't. The Republicans need to stop being the party of lower taxes, or no new taxes, because that's a dead end. Instead, they need to become the party of relatively small tax increases.
One problem, though: This niche is already taken by the Democrats. Today's political center is inhabited just about exclusively by Democrats. Geoffrey Kabaservice and others have called for Republicans to become once again the "modern Republicans" of the Eisenhower era. But let's say they decided Kabaservice was right. How would they distinguish themselves from Obama, whom more than one commentator has already compared to … Dwight Eisenhower? The GOP can't become 1950s-style "modern Republicans" right now because that's what the Democrats are! Ergo, the Democrats must migrate leftward. Instead of impersonating Eisenhower, President Obama needs to start impersonating Franklin Roosevelt or the pre-Vietnam-escalation Lyndon Johnson.
It is, to be sure, a tricky calculus. The center is a pretty comfy place to be. The more Democrats dominate the center, the better their electoral prospects will remain. The more they shift leftward, the less certain these will be. But the governing imperative runs in the opposite direction. The more Democrats dominate the center, the worse their governing prospects will be, because the opposition they try to bargain with will by definition lie outside the center. If Democrats shift leftward, their governing prospects will improve because Republicans will shift leftward, too. Then compromise with Republicans will produce acceptably centrist results.
President Obama has been accused of wanting to destroy the Republicans' viability as a national party so he can usher in an era of Democratic dominance. But if he were to do that—and I have my doubts he even wants to—his victory would have to be swift and total. The percentage of Republicans in Congress would have to be so small that the Democrats could govern entirely without Republican participation. I don't see that happening.
Rather than destroy the Republicans, Democrats need to give Republicans a reason to move to the center. The only way to make that happen is for the Democrats to travel leftward, dropping Reese's Pieces along the way so that Republicans can follow them, like E.T. That doesn't mean giving up the center entirely. But it does mean sharing it.