Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009 | Franklin D. Roosevelt, running for president three years into the Great Depression, promised to “take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Meanwhile, President Hoover, buying Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s belief that the depression would “purge the rottenness out of the system” tried nothing.
Hoover won six states in the election that year.
Roosevelt took office amid national panic. Wall Street had collapsed, the economy had been sinking since 1929 and unemployment stood at a quarter of the work force. One thousand homeowners a day were losing their homes. Voters gave the Democrats big majorities in both houses of Congress in ’32. Like Roosevelt, the nation was ready to “above all, try something.”
So were Congressional Republicans, who during the “Hundred Days” rallied behind Roosevelt’s boldest moves, including the Emergency Banking Act, which closed down banks and sent in national inspectors to reorganize them, and the Economy Act, which Republicans supported over Democratic opposition.
Barack Obama faces nothing so dire as 1933, though there are reasons to agree with Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman that “this looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.” But just as in ’33, Republicans face their moment of truth: Do they want to use government economic tools to avoid a second Great Depression, or do they agree with un-elected GOP leader Rush Limbaugh, who says of Obama: “I want him to fail.”
Consider Limbaugh’s words: Obama failing means economic recovery failing. Economic recovery failing means doing nothing to prevent the second depression that Krugman warns about, a depression that didn’t end until the massive recovery program called World War II finally put people back to work.
Obama failing means our political system failing. Three months ago, Obama won a comfortable majority vote and more than twice as many electoral votes as his opponent. The situation is analogous to 1933 with this difference: Republicans wanted the president to succeed in 1933. Today, the Senate GOP would use the filibuster to have him fail.
If GOP memories are too short for 1933, how about 1993? That was the year every Republican in Congress voted against the Clinton deficit reduction act. The Clinton bill raised taxes, reduced the debt, set the country on a decade of growth (ending with a budget surplus) and drove a stake through the cold hearts of supply-side economists, who since the Reagan years had argued that tax increases led to economic decline.
What is particularly bizarre about current GOP policy today is that in 1993 Clinton was proposing tax increases. This year, Obama is proposing tax cuts. As he said Monday during an impressive first White House press conference: The last thing the nation needs in this crisis is “ideological blockage.”
Obama entered office seeking reconciliation and bi-partisanship. As in 1933, the choice for Republicans was clear: party or nation? “Unless we do something to adapt,” GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell told his party two weeks ago, “our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery … we risk becoming a permanent minority party.”
McConnell’s fears are justified. In November, the GOP won only the South and the Midwest. The trend among important cohorts like women, voters under 45, gays, Hispanics, Asians and Afro-Americans was strongly to the Democrats. Socially, the GOP was competitive in November among only four groups: seniors, Southerners, the wealthy and religious fundamentalists.
By opposing the majority’s plan to keep the nation from sinking into depression, Republicans are doing nothing to adapt. Their mantra for every problem — whether wars, booms, recessions or depressions, is the same: deregulation and more tax cuts.
How is that consistent with the call to adapt? How does it keep the GOP from becoming a permanent minority party? Wouldn’t it be smarter to join the process? Wall Street’s objections to the plan Tuesday was over its lack of specifics, not over any shortage of tax cuts. By playing a positive role, Republicans could hope to appeal again to those Republicans and independents who historically have supported the GOP, but hate what it became under Bush.
Instead, Republicans repeat their tax-cut mantra and work to remove aid to the states from the plan — which has Republican governors from California to Florida fuming. Standing by Obama’s side Tuesday, Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist shouted, “this bill is for the country.” Instead of backing the bill’s banking provisions — ones that, as in 1933, will send government auditors into banks to approve them or close them down — all House Republicans opposed the bill and all but three Senate Republicans.
How can a rationalist — or nationalist, for that matter — follow the advice of someone like Limbaugh who militates for national failure at a time like this? One can criticize the plan for lacking specificity and not being comprehensive enough to deal with the magnitude of the problem, but the GOP’s sulking on the sidelines is pitiful. As Obama said Monday, “They doubled the national debt. I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.