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America Wins When Democrats Go It Alone

August 19, 2009

Back in January, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman presciently warned President Obama about the GOP's bad faith in negotiating the stimulus bill, announcing, "Look, Republicans are not going to come on board." Now Krugman's paper is reporting the White House may finally be learning its lesson and planning to "go it alone" on health care reform. Which is just as well. If the history of the past 30 years teaches us anything, it's that bipartisanship is a one-way street and that the America people win when Democrats stick to their guns and go it alone.
As the table below makes clear, the days of overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress bringing some recalcitrant Republicans along for the passage of Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965) are long gone. While some turncoat Democrats helped GOP Presidenta Reagan and Bush sell their supply-side snake oil, the modern obstructionist Republican Party is determined to torpedo new Democratic presidents at all costs:

As the events of the past few days make clear, the battle over health care reform is no different.
For all of his apparent concessions on the public option, President Obama was greeted with a wall of GOP opposition to even a further watered down health care bill. His Senate negotiating partner Chuck Grassley (R-IA) may have backed off his myth-making about "pulling the plug on grandma," but nonetheless made clear that without the support of other Republicans he would not vote for legislation he himself helped craft. Arizona's John Kyl insisted even the supposed co-op compromise would be a "Trojan horse" for "government-run health care," concluding, "I don't believe Republicans will be inclined to support a bill." And while that line was echoed by Jim Demint and Orrin Hatch in the Senate, House Republican Study Group chairman Tom Price (R-GA) called the ill-defined co-op alternative "a wolf in sheep's clothing." (Price's hyperbole comes as no surprise; just three weeks ago he declared, "Nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare.)"
If Barack Obama is the irresistible force, the Congressional Republican Party is the immovable object. As John Cole lamented, "At some point, these folks are going to learn that no matter what happens, the Republicans are not going to vote for anything." Sadly, the White House didn't need its painful experience with complete Republican obstructionism over the slimmed-down $787 billion economic recovery package to learn that lesson. Just look at what happened to Bill Clinton.
When Clinton's 1993 economic program scraped by without capturing the support of even one GOP lawmaker, the New York Times duly noted the Republicans' tactics were unprecedented:

Historians believe that no other important legislation, at least since World War II, has been enacted without at least one vote in either house from each major party.

Inheriting massive budget deficits and unemployment topping 7% from Bush the Elder, Clinton's $496 billion program was nonetheless opposed by every single member of the GOP, as well as defectors from his own party. As the Times recounted, it took a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Al Gore to earn victory:

An identical version of the $496 billion deficit-cutting measure was approved Thursday night by the House, 218 to 216. The Senate was divided 50 to 50 before Mr. Gore voted. Since tie votes in the House mean defeat, the bill would have failed if even one representative or one senator who voted with the President had switched sides.

But while Bill Clinton met with total opposition from Republicans, neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was similarly subjected to scorched-earth politics from Democrats.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept to power promising to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the budget. And in 1981, he delivered on the first part of that promise. With substantial support from Democrats in the House and Senate, Reagan easily won the battle to enact the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, lauded by the hagiographers of the right as the largest tax cut in American history:

The House then completed the formality of giving final passage to the Administration bill by a vote of 323 to 107. Shortly before the House voted, the Reagan forces rolled to an 89-to-11 victory in the Senate. There, 37 Democrats voted with 52 Republicans for the bill.

Of course, Democratic acquiescence to Republican fiscal irresponsibility was repeated two decades later with President Bush.
Unlike the 7.6% unemployment rate and $1.2 trillion deficit Barack Obama inherited, George W. Bush arrived at the White House with a federal budget surplus and joblessness at 4.2% - and no mandate. And yet that spring, some Democrats supported it just the same. With only minor changes (the tax cuts were not permanent, the estate tax was lowered and not eliminated, the total size reduced from $1.6 trillion to $1.35 trillion), the 2001 Bush tax cuts passed both houses of Congress with substantial numbers of Democrats voting in favor:

The bill passed the House by a vote of 240 to 154, with 28 Democrats and an independent joining all Republicans in voting yes. The Senate then passed it by a vote of 58 to 33. Twelve Democrats joined 46 Republicans in support of the bill in the Senate.

Ironically, Senate Finance Committee Democrat Max Baucus (D-MT) was a turncoat then as well, saying after the June 8, 2001 signing ceremony at the White House:

"Every day it looks like a better and better decision. In many respects, I think politically I helped the party. We Democrats would have been in trouble in 2002 just saying no to every one of the president's proposals.''

Ultimately, of course, history was not kind to the Republican obstructionists who put politics before public policy. Reagan's massive 1981 tax cuts led to even more massive budget deficits, forcing the Gipper to later raise taxes twice. George W. Bush, too, saw the federal government hemorrhage red ink and presided over the worst eight-year economic record of any modern American president. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Clinton's tenure in the 1990's witnessed rapid economic growth, low unemployment, balanced budgets and projected surpluses.
As it turns out, President Obama's smaller-than-desirable American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) also seems to be working as intended. After steep declines of 5.4% and 6.4% in the previous two quarters, gross domestic product fell only 1% in the last three months. And while the ARRA overall added "up to 3 full percentage points of annualized growth in the quarter," President Obama's stimulus helped precisely where it was needed most - rescuing devastated state budgets.
Still, the administration seems to be sending mixed signals on "pulling the plug" on cooperation with the Republican refuseniks when it comes to health care. While Robert Gibbs noted Tuesday that "only a handful seem interested in the type of comprehensive reform that so many people believe is necessary," by Wednesday morning he claimed some Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee "are still working in a constructive way to get reform through the Senate and ultimately to the president's desk."
Meanwhile, as CNN reported, a top Senate Republican warned Democrats that turning to the same reconciliation process used by Ronald Reagan to pass health care legislation would constitute "a declaration of war." In response, a top White House adviser told CNN:

"If we have to push it through this way, no one is going to remember how messy it was. At the end of the day, they'll remember we got health care reform done. A win is a win."

Especially for the American people.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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