By Kurt Eichenwald, kurteichenwald.com, September 2, 2012
The GOP must be stopped in 2012. The future of America’s ideals of democracy – and of the Republican Party itself – could well be at stake...in the last four years, the GOP has transmogrified into something ugly and vicious and, more important, something wedded to the politics of fantasy and ignorance… Lying has become so ingrained into the conservatives’ national dialogue that they are now dangerously demagogic or, worse, severely unhinged…. Defeat must not only be decisive, it must be crippling. Here are five reasons why:
I. They are liars.
II. They are demagogues.
III. They are economic arsonists.
IV. They are threatening American democracy.
V. They are threatening America….Until the Republican party grows up, until they stop lying about economic realities, until they can finally start to behave like they believe in their ideas rather than just demonizing their opponents, then the party is at risk of becoming a minority party forever. Rage, delusions and lies are not the path to power.
The GOP must be stopped in 2012. The future of America’s ideals of democracy – and of the Republican Party itself – could well be at stake.
Contrary to how it might seem, I am not a partisan bomb thrower. Throughout most of my adulthood, I have been just as likely to vote for a Republican as for a Democrat – in local, state and national contests. I have cast my ballot in presidential races for both Republicans and Democrats. But in the last four years, the GOP has transmogrified into something ugly and vicious and, more important, something wedded to the politics of fantasy and ignorance. It has rushed so far from its moorings that I cannot conceive of voting for members of this party until, hopefully, they pull themselves back from the precipice of self-destruction, paranoia and delusion.
Today, for Republicans, up is down and front is back. Lying has become so ingrained into the conservatives’ national dialogue that they are now dangerously demagogic or, worse, severely unhinged. Blind rage at the election of Barack Obama has wrecked a once great political party. Its leaders have made so many deals with the devil in their almost pathological obsession with unseating Obama that they have pushed the GOP into its own version of political hell – unable to speak truths to their now-rabid and conspiracy-addled base and unable to right the party back onto a path of responsibility.
Only through the disinfectant of defeat can the Republicans, and the two party system, be preserved. And so, the campaign of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan must be consigned to the ash heap of history. Defeat must not only be decisive, it must be crippling. Here are five reasons why:
I. They are liars. Most of the major newspapers and networks have adopted Marquess of Queensbury rules when addressing the utterance of utter falsehoods by Romney, Ryan and their surrogates. A velvet glove doesn’t deter deliberate deceit, and it certainly hasn’t here. Calling the words of Romney and Ryan “at odds with the truth” and “not factually accurate” is the coward’s way of communicating that the entire GOP campaign is based on lies, innuendo and more lies. There is a dramatic difference between the usual nip-and-tucking of the presidential campaign season and the flood of prevarication pouring out of the mouths of Romney and Ryan. To name just a few:
a. Obama and welfare. In a not-so-subtle dog whistle to the racists of the GOP, Romney and Ryan have repeatedly stated that Obama has tried to remove the “workfare” requirement of welfare. This, one of the campaign aides has said, has proven to be Romney’s most effective campaign ad. The fact that it is a complete lie seemed irrelevant: All Obama has done is accepted appeals from governors to allow them to try out some workfare ideas more suited to their local situations, rather than be obligated to follow the federal cookie-cutter rules. Fine, Obama said, so long as the number of welfare recipients going to work stays at least the same. There is no removal of the requirement, just an acceptance of the usual GOP philosophy that states should be allowed to act in their own interest. The question for Romney: Would he rescind the waivers, and force states to follow the federal dictates rather than allowing them to come up with their own means of reaching the same results? Don’t bother wondering about the answer. He would just lie. And don’t think that other Republicans will avoid joining in on this racist strategy: three weeks ago, Newt Gingrich (who once called Romney a liar) pronounced that there was “no proof” to back up the welfare claim; at the convention, the same Gingrich climbed the podium to attack Obama for “gutting” the workfare requirement. Guess he finally read the memo from the Romney campaign that truth is not a factor in this election.
b. Obama robbed Medicare of more than $700 billion. This is one of those lies that works because explaining the truth is complicated. The obvious implication – and in fact, the frequent statement by the GOPers – is that Obama took money from seniors to pay for Obamacare, and in the process put Medicare at risk. It. Is. A. Lie. As has been stressed again and again – without effect on the liars – there is no benefit cut for any beneficiary. The $700 billion is not a cut – it is the value of savings. By the GOP argument, people who buy shoes on sale are cutting back on their shoe purchases – they aren’t, they’re just using their money wisely. So is Obama: the money comes from providers who are accepting the decrease because the payments will be offset by the influx of new patients that will come from Obamacare. Other savings come from eliminating overpayments to Medicare Advantage. Then more will come from raising Medicare taxes on the wealthy. This not only doesn’t hurt Medicare, it extends the lifetime of the program. “The Affordable Care Act doesn’t steal anything from Medicare,” Henry Aaron, a health-care expert at the Brookings Institution, told Business Week. “It actually improves Medicare’s finances. No matter how you slice it, the Affordable Care Act strengthens medical hospital insurance.” Check out the Businessweek article for the full run-down on the Medicare lie.
c. The GM factory closing in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan has made big waves about the plant closing, laying it on Obama’s doorstep. And there is no possibility that Ryan doesn’t know he’s lying. Obama became president in January 2009. On October 23, 2008 – in other words, before the election — Paul Ryan sent out a press release bemoaning the fact that GM had decided to accelerate the pace of the closing of the plant. Right now, Ryan’s local newspaper is selling an iconic image: factory workers gathered at the plant assembly line standing behind a sign that reads, “Last Vehicle Off the Janesville Assembly Line…December 23, 2008.” For those who think Ryan is a truth teller, here is where you can order the picture. Oh, and by the way, don’t think this is a mistake on Ryan’s part. The fact that this statement is a lie has been pointed out every time he has said it. Didn’t stop him from burping out the same falsehood in his nomination acceptance speech. And more important – when did Republicans begin to think that the government is supposed to decide what plants an auto company should keep open.
d. “You didn’t build that.” Stop and think for a moment – not based on partisan lunacy, but just on logic. Any presidential contender stands up and tells business people that they didn’t build their own businesses? It takes an enormous level of self-delusion and irrationality to believe that someone is that stupid. And, of course, the truth is that Obama said no such thing. The statement came in the course of a litany about how everyone has others to thank for their successes – he cited, for example, a teacher or a coach. In the sentence leading up to “businesses” he referred to the roads and bridges that are necessary for business to function and, yes, the businesses did not build that. Now, if Obama had said “those” instead of “that,” the ability of the GOP to lie about what he said would have been minimized. But it speaks to the shallow dishonesty of the modern GOP to know that an entire evening of its convention was built on exploiting a finding a grammatical loophole to drive their truck through.
e. “Obama wants to prevent the military from voting.” This has to do with the attempts by the Ohio GOP to impede voting by blocks that tend to case their ballots for the Democrats. A rule was adopted by which limits were placed on the ability of locals to vote, cutting into the time where there is the highest turnout of minority voters. However, an exception was made for members of the military. This was challenged by the Obama administration, not to stop members of the military from voting, but to allow everyone else to have the same rights. Rather than admitting they were trying to favor one block of voters over the other, the GOP turned reality on its head. And P.S. – the courts agree that Obama is right.
f. Obama is on a spending spree. Never happened. I could lecture on this for a while, but instead let’s turn to the words of that bastion of liberal thought, the Wall Street Journal through its Marketwatch site. A 2012 article entitled “Obama spending binge never happened,” reports that “federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s. Even hapless Herbert Hoover managed to increase spending more than Obama has.” But that doesn’t stop Romney from moaning that Obama has created a “debt and spending inferno.” Read the whole article – it points out that there was a huge growth in spending in Obama’s first year, but that was meaningless; 2009 was the year of the last budget of the Bush Administration. (For more on the debt lies, see the section below on economics)
g. The stimulus failed. This is not only a lie, it makes no sense. If any country spends $700 billion on infrastructure and other projects, employment will go up. Three million people got jobs from the stimulus; Wall Street firms say, without hesitation, that it worked. I’m not sure how anyone could think it wouldn’t. Some may disagree whether it was the right thing to do (although, for a variety of reasons I will explain below, it was) but to claim it failed is simply wishes replacing reality.
h. Obama raised taxes. Hard to address this, since it has no basis in reality. Obama proposed and signed the largest middle class income tax cut in history. Tax rates for the wealthy are the same. There’s nothing else that can be said about this lie.
i. “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” This one deserves special recognition. Romney’s first major ad featured a clip of Obama making this statement. Sounds pretty devastating, right? Except this was a clip from the 2008 campaign, and Obama was quoting his Republican opponent. The full quote is: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’’’ When this was pointed out to the Romney campaign, they not only dismissed the fact that they were lying, one of the aides said they were going to keep doing this kind of thing because Obama had to be held to account for the words he spoke – as if words and meaning were two different things. “You didn’t build that” is just a continuation of that cynical, un-American philosophy of Mitt Romney.
I could keep going with this for a long, long time, but these are the high points. It makes quite clear why a recent headline on the Fox News website is so humorous, “After the convention: What lies ahead for Romney, Ryan?” Fox didn’t mean it the way I am interpreting it, but there are only two answers. The way Fox meant it, the correct answer is “lies.” The way I interpret it, the correct answer is “outrageous ones.”
II. They are demagogues. What is it about the state of Wisconsin? First it brought us Joe McCarthy, now it brings us Paul Ryan – two men willing to say anything, tell any lie, appeal to any fear, if it means advancing their political careers. The willingness to lie is bad enough, but when it is used to play on people’s ignorance and passions, a politician has crossed the line from dishonest to dangerous. The distant drums of demagoguery are growing ever closer. They began with Sarah Palin’s mantra about “real Americans.” They started their inexorable approach when GOPers bowed down to the conspiracy theorists in their own party – the same people who considered fluoridation of water to be a communist plot – with winks and nods that maybe Obama wasn’t an American citizen. Forget the fact that, as the son of a parent who is a citizen, he is a citizen. They allowed this fear to spread without ever calling bullshit. “I accept the President at his word” was considered a strong response, instead of “Don’t be ridiculous.” (Imagine how outraged – rightfully – the GOP would have been if the Dems had reacted to the loons in their midst who said Bush orchestrated 9/11 by saying that they took the president at his word that he didn’t arrange the attack.) We have had the birth certificate since 2008, the Hawaiian State Health Department says its real, and no one has ever come up with a reason why this question is even being asked in the first place.” But the rabid mobs liked the idea of the black man as foreigner, and so it continues. Add in the other mantras – Obama hates America, Obama wants to give your money to minorities, Obama wants to let gays destroy the sanctity of marriage – and the GOP has successfully created the “other,” the internal enemy that threatens to undermine the country. First it was the communists, then the fundamentalists, and now Obama. (In fact, since I started with McCarthy, look at history: Truman, large swaths of the GOP intoned, was a Communist, deemed the central enemy of America. Now that conservatives see the new enemy as Islam, Obama, large swaths of the GOP intones, is a Muslim.) The modern GOP has used lies to appeal to irrationality and a lack of knowledge – I have had Republicans tell me that they are scared for their parents because Obama is going to euthanize them, that Obama is planning to plant tracking chips in all Americans after the election, that a civil war is coming, that Obama had advanced warning of 9/11, and on and on. This is a form of mass delusion that can only end badly, if allowed to fester or be validated in any way. GOP leaders have stoked this furnace of hate, and in the process have both trapped themselves with a new base of voters divorced from reality and allowed for the empowerment of the reckless and dangerous people who used to be at the fringes of the Republican party. Demagogues depend on hate and fear; once they are unleashed, though, those emotional forces are hard to put back in the bottle.
III. They are economic arsonists. As someone who has spent much of my career reporting on business, finance and other money matters, I have had a lot of trouble in recent years figuring out if the GOP really is as ignorant of basic economics as their words make them out to be, or if they are intentionally willing to upend the American economy for their own interests. I’ve come to believe that it is a little bit of both – that they are so blinded by philosophical fidelity that facts and knowledge are just pushed aside. It is either intentional, or willful blindness. The evidence is overwhelming:
a. The glory of tax cuts: Should taxes be cut? Of course. Should taxes be raised? Of course. Should interest rates be raised or lowered? Of course. And I am not contradicting myself. Each of these answers is correct depending on the economic circumstances at the time. Now, this topic is both so important and so involved that I need to break it down into pieces:
1. The Reagan tax cut mythology, part 1: Reagan’s tax cuts did not trigger an economic boom. In 1981, Reagan was correct that taxes needed to be cut; the American economy was facing an unprecedented beast called “stagflation” – inflation (normally associated with a runaway economy) and high unemployment (normally associated with low inflation.) The Federal Reserve, under chairman Paul Volker, needed to squelch inflation with a huge increase in interest rates, and did so (to see the horrors of this interest rate path, take a look at the historic rates for 20 year an 1 year Treasury bonds. One month before Reagan took office, the Prime Rate hit is all-time high of 21.5 percent. With the cost of money at the highest rates in history, economic activity had slowed to a near crawl. Outside of monetary policy, the other lever available to the government was fiscal; attempting to get more money in the hands of Americans — any Americans – was important to prevent the economy from falling off a cliff. Now, in the fantasy retelling of the Reagan years blathered out by modern Republicans with no knowledge or concern about economic history, the Reagan tax cuts passed in 1981, and the economy transformed into paradise. But that story is fiction. Instead, the tax cuts of 1981 went through – with carnival barkers like Arthur Laffer proclaiming that economic growth would rush in before the ink on the law was dry – and then precisely nothing happened. By 1982, the economy was in such bad shape that the GOP talking point was not “Reagan the magnificent,” it was the plea (a principled one) that Americans should “stay the course,’’ despite the fact that there had been no evidence of growth. In fact, the economy had grown significantly worse – beginning the first full quarter Reagan was in office through the 1982 election, the growth in Gross Domestic Product was negative 8.9 percent. (By way of comparison, for the comparable period in Obama’s term, GDP growth was positive 15 percent.) A few months after the 1982 election – in February 1983 – the Fed had finally cut the Prime Rate below 11 percent, less than half of what it was when Reagan took office. (PS – presidents don’t have any role in raising and lowering interest rates.) And, surprise! Economic growth returned. With the cost of money significantly cheaper, corporations and consumers unleashed a flurry of economic activity – by the end of the first half of 1983, GDP growth had reached positive 5.1 percent. By the 1984 elections. GDP had grown by just under 34 percent since January 1983. Now, did tax cuts help? Sure – they lessened the damaging impact of high interest rates and, when the economy turned around, they helped increase the amount of cash available for economic activity. But if interest rates hadn’t have fallen? Reagan would have been a one-term president and shuffled offstage by the GOP forever.
2. The Reagan tax cut mythology, part 2: One of the most revealing moments in the entire modern tax-cut debate occurred during Leslie Stahl’s interview of Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, on 60 Minutes. Actually, revealing isn’t the right word – terrifying is. Here was a man whose knowledge was critical in how this country would move forward, and he was woefully lacking. At one point, Stahl points out, despite Cantor’s protestations that Reagan never compromised, that Reagan in fact did raise taxes multiple times, with the biggest being in 1982 (before economic activity took off.) Cantor’s people were outraged by Stahl’s truthful recounting of history – outraged! – because it contradicted their Fairy Tales version of the Reagan years. “That just isn’t true,’’ one of Cantor’s aides yelled from off-camera, “And I don’t want to let that stand.” Cantor did nothing to correct his loudmouthed – and wrong – aide. In 1981, Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act – the tax cut law that GOPers slobber over to this day. The following year, in the bit of history excised from the Republican mind, Reagan signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA). While Americans still received tax cuts when aggregated with the prior year’s law, TEFRA constituted the largest tax increase in American history at that time. Why did Reagan do it? Because he wasn’t, contrary to some GOP revisionists, a blind ideologue. After the adoption of the 1981 tax cuts, government analyses showed that the impact on four-year average impact on federal revenues would negative 2.89 percent of GDP. (Remember the whole supply side scam, that tax cuts pay for themselves? Well, they don’t.) After TEFRA, the four-year average was positive 0.98 percent. You see, it seems that when you increase tax, tax revenues go up. Funny, that. But, because the tax cuts were cumulative negative, deficits went up. The first time in American history when deficits exceeded $100 billion was in 1982. The deficits stayed above that number until 1998, during the Clinton Administration. The first surplus came in 1999. (For those who don’t remember economic history under Clinton, he raised taxes in 1993, and – surprise again – higher tax rates increased federal revenue and allowed the government to reduce the amount of publicly held debt outstanding. Funny, that.)
3. Reagan tax cut mythology part 3: At a meeting in the Oval Office, Obama commented on the fact that tax rates are lower now than they were under Reagan. After the meeting, Rep. Michelle Bachmann – one of the dangerous Republicans whose certainty to knowledge ratio might well be the first to exceed 100 percent – scoffed that Obama was fibbing. Of course, as the mantra goes, we have been pillories with higher taxes in the years after Reagan. But no – Obama was right. The total Average Federal Tax Rate for all income quintiles was between 21 and 22 percent in the Reagan years. When Obama took office, it was 17 percent. If the Democrats introduced the “Ronald Reagan Tax and Fairness Act” (I made the name up) calling for a return to the tax rates under Reagan, we would be talking about a 23 percent tax increase. Tax rates are at historic lows, which is why it is perfectly reasonable, in the face of massive federal debts, to raise them.
4. Laughing at the Laffer Curve: This has lasted for decades since Reagan, and I have touched on it above. But now let’s really delve into the most destructive mythology. In my opinion, Arthur Laffer has done far more damage to the future of America than Osama bin Laden. Here’s why: Laffer came up with his little device called “the Laffer Curve” which stated that tax revenues increased and then decreased once you moved up the rate scale from 0 percent to 100 percent. While there are some technical arguments about why the last number actually isn’t correct, theoretically, Laffer is correct. So, by his logic, there is a point where cutting taxes increases federal revenues. For now, I’ll accept that as true. But there is one huge problem with that argument: the Laffer Curve has no numbers! In other words, assuming Laffer is right, there is a point somewhere on the scale where tax rates bring in the highest amount of government revenues. And where is that number? Nowhere close to where it is now. The empirical analyses conducted by people who are less polemical than Laffer have come up with 68 percent, 70 percent and 35 percent. Whichever number you choose, they are all higher than the current rate of taxation. You see, what Republicans ignore is that it is the Laffer Curve, not the Laffer rising vector. There is some point – even if you want to assume that Laffer is right – where tax cuts decrease the amount of federal revenue. Since 1981, there has been a direct correlation between tax cuts and increases in the deficit. In other words, empirically, the tax rate was below the peal of the Laffer curve before cuts even started. Supply siders will bitch and moan at those numbers, but they are fact, not fantasy. Deficits went up under Reagan, down under Clinton and up (dramatically) under W. To argue that tax cuts pay for themselves is about as logical as saying Jesus rode dinosaurs – it is a statement made to justify a desired outcome, and not something based on any truth.
5. The Lucky Duckies who Pay No Taxes. The Wall Street Journal once wrote an editorial bemoaning the luck of the impoverished, since they don’t pay federal income taxes. At first, I thought it was a joke, and now it is a GOP talking point. They decry the lack of fairness to rich people, who are paying so, so much when others are getting a free ride. And this, as you might imagine, is utter bull. Here’s why: the Americans who are in the top 20 percent of income earners pay about 70 percent of federal taxes – but guess what? They also pull in about 60 percent of total pre-tax income, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In other words, they pay more in absolute dollars in income taxes because they have more income. The argument is akin to complaining that people living in mansions pay the majority of a town’s real estate taxes, while people renting apartments pay nothing. It’s both illogical and knowingly misleading. The statistics cited by the GOP speaks to income disparity not tax fairness. Now, there are 46 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. The reason: they don’t make enough money. The income for twenty three percent of Americans is so low that, once they apply the personal deduction (which is taken by all taxpayers), their tax obligation goes to zero. This group includes the poor, the elderly, students, etc. The only way to bring in more cash from them, if it was possible, would be to cut the personal exemption (which the GOP would never do, because that would affect everyone) or dramatically increase taxes on low-income Americans. The other 23 percent who don’t pay taxes have enough income to pay after the personal exemption, but qualify for tax breaks that bring their bill to zero. This is seen at every income level – in fact, because of this, 1,470 millionaires paid no taxes in 2009. GOPers still moan that everyone should pay taxes by picking and choosing what they want to call a tax. Federal income taxes, in their lexicon, are the only ones that exist, ignoring payroll, state and local taxes. When actual tax burden – rather than bits and pieces of tax burden – are assessed, the bottom 20 percent of income earners pay 17 percent of the total tax bite, versus an effective rate of 30 percent for top earners. And guess what? Those numbers result in all the share of total taxes paid roughly matching the share of total income for each of the income groups.
6. The “Job Creators”: Let’s do the two-second version of this. A millionaire gets a $340,000 tax cut. And this translates into a job how? Maybe he’ll hire another housekeeper, maybe buy some more from Tiffany’s, but the vast majority of that money will not be spent on goods that drive the economy – it will be put into savings. Usually, that can be a good thing, but in a stagnant economy, the people whose financial activity creates jobs are the middle class. Give a middle class family $10 during a rough economy, they spend it. And that is how an economy gets moving. What we need is more tax cuts for the middle class, not tax cuts for the wealthy. (And, again, you have to look at actual numbers. The Bush tax cuts went into place in 2002: employment remained fairly stagnant until the financial crisis of 2008, when unemployment skyrocketed. They cuts have remained in place throughout the Obama Administration; so if the tax cuts fuel hiring, where the hell are the jobs?
7. The GOP is the party of tax cuts: I was horrified by something I saw in Obama’s first State of the Union in 2010 (not the GOP congressman who yelled out “you lie!” which should have led to his being sanctioned by Congress.) Instead, it was a point in Obama’s speech when he mentioned that the stimulus had given the middle class the greatest tax cut in history. It’s true – it did. This was not something I figured would be controversial. The Democrats jumped out of their seats and applauded. The Republicans did nothing – no applause, nothing. That was the moment that really put me on a path of contempt for a party I had once supported: they didn’t care about tax cuts, only about tax cuts for the rich. I had long considered that something of a canard, but from what I witnessed, I no longer had any doubt that Republican economic philosophy had nothing to do with economics (which was why so much of it was illogical) but instead was about one thing: their constituents wanted money. That’s it. The Laffer Curve, the fictionalization of the Reagan years, job creators, lucky duckies – all of that was no accident. It was a means of obfuscating the truth so that the middle class would sit by as the wealthy looted the federal treasury. And my realization was only reinforced in the years that followed: GOPers ranted and raved about the need for tax cuts for “job creators” but when the time came for a renewal of a payroll tax cut – which helped the middle class enormously but did almost nothing for the rich – the GOP fought it. When Obama proposed allowing the Bush tax cuts for the middle class to be renewed, the GOP refused, instead taking the proposal hostage in an attempt to force through tax cuts for the rich.
b. The debt. No matter how many times it’s said, the truth on this one struggles to become part of the American understanding. When George W. Bush assumed the presidency, the budget was in surplus and the projections showed that the government would be able to pay down much of its debt within the next six years. Then, came the Bush tax cuts. Beginning in 2002, the Federal government fell into deficit again – and hasn’t recovered since. The deficit is the annual contribution to the total debt owed by the federal government, and that number began climbing in 2002 in ways that are unprecedented in the history of the world. In 2002, the year that the first Bush budget was effective, the total outstanding debt of the United States was $6.2 trillion. It had barely budged in size from the previous year. By the end of the final Bush budget, the total outstanding debt had almost doubled, to $11.9 trillion. In the first two years of Obama budgets, the debt climbed to $13.6 trillion. But why? GOPers like to blame the stimulus – contrary to all available evidence. The stimulus did add an amount – extremely small as a percentage – in the short term. But Obama continued to have to work with the Bush tax cuts and the wars. The Bush tax cuts and the wars have been the single largest factor in the continued growth of the debt by far – both under Bush and under Obama. If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire at the end of this year, the Congressional Budget Office projects that future deficits will be cut in half. There is no way to accomplish that amount of cutback on the deficit by simply going after expenditures – particularly now that Romney and Ryan are pretending that they can kill Obamacare, leave Medicare untouched and increase military budgets. The numbers are simply impossible – there is no money there. Non-defense discretionary spending – areas like foreign aid, education and food safety that GOPers attack as being some huge driving force of deficits – account for only 15 percent of the budget. In other words everything the government does that isn’t military or Medicare only would provide $560 million if cut in its entirety. And the deficit would still be $800 billion – an unsustainable amount. Taxes must be increased if America is going to survive.
c. The debt ceiling “debate”: There has never been a more irresponsible and reckless act on the part of any political party than the financial crisis engendered by the GOP in 2011 in its refusal to raise the debt ceiling limit without a fight; the real possibility was raised that America would, for the first time since its founding, default on its debt obligations to the world. The debt ceiling is nothing more than the legal limit on borrowing allowed for the federal government. Both houses of Congress have to approve the limit and have done so repeatedly since 1917. Usually, raising the debt ceiling was a perfunctory matter – it had been done 74 times since 1962. Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times and Bush II raised them 7 times – tax cuts have to be paid for with borrowings, after all. Put another way, Reagan raised the debt limit every five months, Bush every 13 months, and Obama every 15 months. (Clinton was every 24 months.) So, without the possibility of contradiction, the presidents who needed the debt ceiling raised the most often were Reagan and Bush, and the Republicans burbled happily as they did it. Suddenly though, in the middle of a global financial trauma, those same GOPers decided that now raising the debt ceiling mattered. And, somehow, they portrayed this as being representative of out-of-control spending by the Democrats. (I showed why that was bogus up above.) There were a few other things that the Republican talking points hid from America – raising the debt ceiling wasn’t about allowing future spending, it was about paying past bills. In other words, the money had already been spent – demanding cuts in future budgets did nothing to affect the structural debt. Now, American debt has been considered the safest investment globally for decades. Whenever international financial markets are rocked, investors take a flight to safety by buying American debt. Treasury bonds are part of untold thousands of investment strategies, used as a means of diminishing the risk profile of a portfolio. All of this works solely because of international faith that America would never default on its debt. But once the economic illiterates known as the Tea Partiers came into office, their hopes, wishes and assertions became the other side of an economic debate about facts, figures and reality. Oh, investors wouldn’t care about America not paying its obligated interest on the debt, they intoned, as the actual investors who owned the debt squealed about the impact of such a delay being disastrous. The Tea Partiers seemed to believe that the holders of American debt were little old ladies in Idaho, picking out breadcrumbs from their tea cozies while waiting for the next check from the government. And that ain’t reality. The vast majority of American debt is held by sophisticated international investors who, as I said, use Treasuries as part of a complex portfolio of investments. If the cash doesn’t arrive as planned, the investment strategy dies. If people trading Treasury bills know that there is a default, the value of those Treasuries would crash through the floor. The debate – which in truth was over nothing real – put at risk the global financial recovery, simply so the GOPers could score a few points and work to appease the economic idiots they had helped usher into government. That’s why, in the middle of this pointless debate, S&P downgraded American debt from the first time in history – something that Romney and Ryan blame on Obama, which is, of course, a lie. The real reason? That the debt ceiling had been turned into a political football. S&P wrote:
The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.
Moreover, the country’s rating had been damaged because of the GOP’s apparent insistence to keep the Bush tax cuts in place. S&P wrote:
Our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.
If Americans understood what had really happened in the debt ceiling debacle, and the possible horrific damage it could have inflicted on the country, they would – hopefully – run these people out of Washington and instead replace them with either Republicans more interested in governing than in rage or, if they can’t be found anymore, with Democrats.
IV. They are threatening American democracy. In 2008, when Norm Coleman was said to have won the Senate election by 215 votes, Sean Hannity of Fox News slammed the Democratic nominee, Al Franken, for pursuing a recount. Never mind that the recount was required by law; Coleman, Hannity intoned, had won fair and square. That set in motion the conservative meme – Coleman won, and Franken was trying to steal the election. Franken was slammed as a crybaby who should now to the wishes of the electorate, concede and stop wasting the state’s money. Then, whoops – the recount showed that Franken had won by 312 votes and the conservative storyline changed dramatically. Fraud! The Wall Street Journal said it, Hannity said it, Rush Limbaugh and even Coleman. It was, one Republican commentator (I think it was David Frum) said a symptom of the party: When they won it was the choice of the people, when they lost, it was fraud. Put simply, the GOP had trouble accepting when it loses.
That arrogance underscores the vast willingness of the modern GOP to cripple American democracy. The crusade against “voting fraud” has its base in the utter disbelief on the part of the Republicans that they can lose any elections. Never mind that there is no evidence that any fraud of any importance takes place in elections. This, they intoned, required emergency actions to insure that elections were protected.
And so, the assault began. The boogeyman-ization of Acorn – the organization that served to register voters among the poor – was just stage one. With a political campaign that was as breathless as it was absurd, Republicans portrayed Acorn as this vast conspiracy to create legions of fake voters with names like Mickey Mouse. Never mind that registration is not voting, never mind that no one had ever been found who voted fraudulently as a result of an Acorn registration. This, the Republicans intoned, was a threat that had to be destroyed. And they succeeded – Acorn became the symbol for voter fraud, even though none had been committed, and the organization was put to death. Registration of the poor was hobbled.
In case anyone tried to pick up the slack, people stepped in like the governor of Florida Rick Scott – a man whom I met when he was running the criminal corporation Columbia/HCA and who is not only the creepiest person I have ever encountered, but one whose dishonesty is only exceeded by his egomania. Scott imposed rules on anyone who tried to register people to vote that were so stringent and punitive that organizations like the League of Women Voter’s announced that they could not risk registering voters in the state. (Thankfully, a Federal court has shut down the scheme for now.)
But that was just the beginning. In one Republican-controlled state after another, new rules were put in place to deal with the voting fraud “emergency.” That no Republican could cite a single instance of fraud in their state tied to an individual misrepresenting their identity was irrelevant – voter ID’s suddenly required. The fact that millions of the elderly, the handicapped, minorities and students did not have the kind of ID now being demanded was not deemed as important. Somehow stopping the nonexistent fraudulent voters was worth disenfranchising more Americans than have been blocked from voting since the 1960s. And it is no coincidence that the people being blocked are all major Democratic blocks. As one Republican official in Pennsylvania put it, they had adopted Voter ID, and now Mitt Romney could win the state. Words that would make any banana republic dictator smile.
Conservatives fear the same democracy that they praise. They want everyone to vote – so long as it is people like them. If they retain control in state houses, next time around, the person who won’t be able to vote might be you.
Fortunately, American democracy has some checks and balances. Voter ID laws in Texas were thrown out because, the court rules, they were adopted with the intent of discriminating against minorities. The attempt to impose unequal early voting in Ohio – as well as cut directly into the periods where minorities vote in the heaviest numbers – was struck down by a court. And the dominoes just keep falling.
One thing to know, though. I am not issuing an argument against using voter ID – even if the problem is bogus, Americans have been led to believe that it is real. The problem isn’t identification, it is the requirement for identification that particular classes of voters are either unlikely to have or who would find them difficult to obtain. Virginia has a voter ID law, but it is not designed to keep people away from the polls. The forms of ID that are accepted, as well as a rule that allows for voting by mail with the ballots sent to individual registered voters – have the same effect in preventing “fraud.” They just don’t stop people from voting. You will be able to judge the intent of states going forward that adopt voter ID laws if they follow the Virginia model of inclusion, or the Texas model of exclusion.
V. They are threatening America. What if they won? What if Romney, Ryan and the other amoral executioners of this strategy of deceit succeeded in slithering their way into the White House through a pack of lies and demonization? The United States is more important than what person is in office at any particular moment; what matters is not the victor, but the process. And the GOP has taken to doing everything it can to undermine the process. They are exhibiting their utter contempt for American citizens by piling lie upon lie, hoping to deceive people into believing in a fictitious country that allows for the GOP to retain control. They are utilizing the obscene Citizens United case to undermine the very nature of democracy by allowing anonymous millionaires to broadcast as many lies as they can in order to fool the electorate for whom they have so much disdain. Lying, impeding voting, buying elections – all of this is un-American and reflects a party that no longer has anything to offer other than fear. If it works, god help us…our country will become a nation of liars whose only concern will be how much air time they could purchase to insure the lies penetrate the American consciousness.
Now, as I said, I have been just as likely to vote for Republicans in the past as I have been for Democrats, and just because I am focusing on the GOP doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a piece criticizing some of Obama’s policies. But that is the difference – my critique of Obama would be based on policy. I would be starting with an understanding that we begin with the same fact base, and that facts would be what drove the discussion. I would not be compelled to address fictions, lies and delusions before addressing policy differences. That is the sign of a party that wants to govern, even if I don’t always agree with the ways they want to exercise their governing authority.
On the other hand, the GOP has become a childish, self-centered party that is unfit to govern. You don’t need to look any further than in their immature refusal to call the Democratic Party by its real name – instead, they insist on the Democrat Party, the same way that the bully in some 1980s movie would call a character “slob” if his real name was “Bob.” What is the purpose of this? I don’t know. It demeans every Republican candidate when they say it. But it also is of a piece with the Republican inability to engage an elected president from the Democratic party. Republicans didn’t just go after Clinton’s policies – they called him a murderer, a drug dealer, a rapist. They didn’t just go after John Kerry’s policies – they accused him of faking his heroics, of lying his way to a Purple Heart and a Silver Star (in the process raising doubts about the integrity of those awards for every soldier who has won them), and of shooting a boy in the back. They don’t just go after Obama’s policies – they accuse him of being a Kenyan, a socialist, a communist, a euthanizer, and on and on.
Until the Republican party grows up, until they stop lying about economic realities, until they can finally start to behave like they believe in their ideas rather than just demonizing their opponents, then the party is at risk of becoming a minority party forever. Rage, delusions and lies are not the path to power.
Kurt Eichenwald is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a New York Times bestselling author of three books. He previously worked for twenty years at the Times as a investigative reporter, columnist and senior writer. He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award for excellence in journalism and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2000 and 2002. His second book, The Informant, was called “one of the best nonfiction books of the decade” by The New York Times Book Review and made into a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. He lives in Dallas with his wife and three children.