[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
As the partisan cable networks breathlessly discuss what will happen in the midterm elections in November, there is much talk about how Americans are angry and, as a result, the Republicans are set for major gains in Congress. But the connection between these two assertions--Americans' dissatisfaction and GOP success--strikes me as incredibly lazy, both by the media and the voters.
Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than in the financial regulation battle, which finally concluded with a bill passing the Senate yesterday.
Americans have every right to be angry. Oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months (hopefully, it's finally been contained). Islamic extremists seek to kill Americans. We have a muddy immigration situation, which, no matter on which side of the ideological fence you sit (pun intended), you can't be happy with the way things currently operate.
But the main point of anger is the economy. The official unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent (with millions more not counted because they've given up on looking for a job). People are concerned about their ability to pay their bills and see an unfair system that rewards Wall Street's reckless risks while punishing middle class workers.
But if Americans want to assess blame for these woes, and if they want to choose who should help get us out of these messes, they have an obligation in a democracy to make an effort to really look at the issues before making a decision. And the media, likewise, has an obligation to sort through these complicated issues more carefully.
If the Republican campaign message for 2010 was something like, "Yes, we know that we caused all these problems in the Bush years, but we've learned our lesson, and now we are offering these new ideas to fix things in the future," I would understand (if not agree with) the equating of the problems with Republican gains. But that's not what the Republicans are offering. Rather, the GOP campaign message for 2010 is essentially the same message as the Bush years, only more militant (and more wacky, thanks to the Angle-Paul tea party influence). Their pitch is built around deregulation, lower taxes for the rich, and less government, the very things that got us into this mess in the first place.
The Republican congressional record for the Obama years consists of opposing any initiative the president offered (in an effort to make him look ineffectual), even if he proposed something the GOP itself had supported earlier, and to offer as solutions the same tired policies from the Bush years (tax cuts, even if they add to the deficit, as Sen. Jon Kyl suggested). That shouldn't be a winning election argument. But with incendiary rhetoric and right-wing-propaganda-machine-fueled lies taking center stage, the focus for the midterms hasn't been on the facts (how we got here and what the two parties have offered since).
In fact, the Republicans have been at the heart of the causes of these problems, and they have offered little other than the same policies as solutions.
Which brings us back to financial regulation, an issue directly tied to the current economic problems. We did not magically morph from prosperity to recession. Rather, the current recession and massive job loss began with the near collapse of the financial system in 2008. Wall Street played a win-lose game (they won no matter what, but we all lost) with risky financial instruments. The housing market collapsed under the weight of subprime mortgages. So the deregulation trumpeted by Republicans caused this mess, and yet the party still touts deregulation.
Certainly, Americans should be angry. And it would seem obvious that action was needed. Nevertheless, all but three Republicans in the Senate didn't think so. Given a choice of standing with the banks or the American people, the Republicans announced their allegiance loud and clear: It is the party of the financial institutions.
So what is the Republican solution to our economic woes? Based on the actions of their leaders, it seems to be to blame the victims, cut taxes and protect the banks. Not only have Republicans opposed extending unemployment benefits, they have tried to blame the unemployed for their plight, particularly cruel since it was their policies that put them out of work in the first place. Arthur Delaney pointed out two examples in HuffPo last week: Sen. John Kyl said unemployment benefits provide a disincentive for the unemployed to seek work, and Sen. Judd Gregg claimed that unemployment insurance encourages the unemployed to stay out of work. (Again, Kyl won't support adding to the deficit for unemployment insurance, but he is fine with doing so for tax cuts for the wealthy.)
Republicans have used increasing government debt as a pro-GOP argument. Generally, it is, of course, better for the government not to run large deficits. But the Republican argument ignores history and is overly simplistic. After all, Bill Clinton handed a surplus to George W. Bush, who proceeded to leave Obama with a gaping deficit. Republicans were happy to run up debt in the 2000s on tax cuts for the rich and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which were paid for. But now that the tens of millions of Americans face unemployment, these same GOP leaders complain about the deficit and say we can't afford any programs to help. How is it that we could afford to spend when it was for tax cuts (and still can, according to Kyl), but not to help those hurt by the Republican-policy-induced recession?
Two polls released on Tuesday showed that Americans care more about unemployment than the deficit. Which party is more concerned with each of those issues? So why should the anger translate to GOP votes? It shouldn't.
In general, Republican policies precipitated the recession, and the party's solutions are to offer more of the same. And when it came to deciding who to stand up for, the Republicans attacked the unemployed and stood with the banks. Americans' anger is legitimate, but directing that anger by giving power back to the GOP is misplaced. The connection makes no sense.
(You could run the same arguments for the oil disaster, immigration and terrorism, showing the Republican culpability and the lack of new solutions offered by the GOP to address the problems.)
I harbor no illusions that Obama and the Democratic Congress are above critique. But I'm saddened that there seems to be no recognition that most of the messes we find ourselves in were created, by and large, by the policies instituted by Bush and his Republican allies in Congress, and that the Republicans are offering those very same policies as the solution in the current campaign. It seems to me handing the reins back to the people who created the problems in the first place (and, more importantly, are only offering more of the same) is a horrible way to respond to the challenges. I'm further saddened that GOP strategy of obstructing and lying, putting rhetoric in front of facts, seems to be working.
You would think that with an oil disaster ravaging his state's already hurting economy, Sen. David Vitter would have better things to do than vote against financial reform and endorse bogus "birther" lawsuits against the president. But this is the essence of the Republican party in 2010.