[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
When I read that Jerry Brown was "bewildered and stunned" at how ideological and uncompromising the GOP had become in California, I was surprised and dismayed, all at the same time.
I was surprised because I had to wonder if the governor had been paying attention to national politics. I've discussed how the Republicans have become a Tea Party-captured institution of far-right activism. Even conservative columnist David Brooks went from arguing in November 2010 that pragmatic conservatives would dominate the Republican leadership in the House to a full-on anti-Tea Party rant in July 2011, declaring that the GOP had been "infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative" and that would not "accept the logic of compromise" or "accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities." He went on to conclude that they have "no economic theory worthy of the name" and "no sense of moral decency."
But I was dismayed, because it only made clearer how much damage the Tea Party-captured Republicans are doing to the country's political process, and how few people outside of those immersed in politics seem to be noticing. And, as I discussed after the debt ceiling battle, I've had it with the total capitulation of the Democrats and the president.
What really struck me about the timing of the Brown piece in the New York Times was that over the last few weeks, it feels as though I've seen story after story that exposes the very specific agenda of the new GOP, which is, as 28-year-veteran Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren put it, "solely and exclusively" interested in helping the wealthy (while camouflaging their policy positions to hide their true motives). Specifically, in just the last few weeks:
- After successfully dangling the U.S. economy over a cliff and threatening to drop it in a bid to extort spending cuts before agreeing to raising the debt ceiling, the GOP again is playing chicken, refusing to pass legislation funding the government (which could lead to a government shut-down) if they can't extort spending cuts in exchange for helping people suffering from the effects of natural disasters like Hurricane Irene. And this comes just weeks after the Republicans held the funding of the FAA hostage (resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars in uncollected taxes from the airlines) while trying to include cuts and union-busting provisions to the legislation.
- With millions of Americans out of work and more suffering due to the slow economy, the Republican leadership in Congress wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke asking him not to try and help spur the economy (something CNBC described as "highly unusual"), blatantly and callously putting their political strategy for 2012 ahead of what's best for the American people.
- The Republicans energetically and vehemently went on the offensive to protect the wealthy from the president's proposed tax on millionaires to help spread the sacrifice in addressing the long-term budget situation, but rejected the president's call for a middle class payroll tax break. (Fortunately, Mother Jones came up with a short, to-the-point, six-item list demonstrating the fictional assertions behind the GOP's stated reasons for opposing a millionaire tax.)
And the Republican refusal to consider any revenue increases to help cut the deficit goes against the views of an overwhelming majority of the American people, including Republicans. A July Gallup poll revealed that while Americans do want cuts to close the budget gap, 68 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents said that their preferred method to balance the budget included at least some tax increases.
But I'm also dismayed because I'm afraid Brown's surprise at GOP unreasonableness is symbolic of the lack of understanding of Democrats in how to handle what is happening in the country now. After all, despite holding positions shared by a majority of the American people (on issues from gay marriage to tax increases on the wealthy), the party hasn't made a clear case as to why they should be preferred to Republicans. The president's poll numbers are falling, a Republican won a special election to fill Anthony Weiner's House seat (yes, I know the Democrats ran a weak candidate and Ed Koch decided that the Orthodox Jewish candidate would be worse at protecting Israel than the Catholic one, but a Democrat losing a House seat in Queens and Brooklyn is newsworthy), and the Democrats are in the strategically problematic position of defending far more Senate seats than the Republicans in 2012.
The problem can be summed up in some recent conflicting poll numbers. Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post how a recent MSNBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that while a majority disapproved of the president's handling of the economy, those same respondents nevertheless supported his policies over those of the GOP.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between policy and politics.
Part of the problem, of course, is that by failing time and time again to stand up to the Tea Party Republicans in the House, the Democrats haven't provided a clear contrast for voters. And in doing so, they've allowed the conversation to shift to the right, with the GOP agenda dominating the conversation. But I think it's more than that. I think that in the current atmosphere in the country, policy positions aren't enough. It's about emotion.
My thinking on this issue came from the oddest place: A 2009 Fox News program. As part of my research for my graduate school thesis, I have been doing a textual analysis of cable news programs in August 2009, around the time Sarah Palin coined the term "death panels" to misrepresent provisions in proposed health care reform legislation (it was PolitiFacts' top lie of 2009). I was reading the transcript from Sean Hannity's August 13, 2009, show, during which a member of his "focus group" said, in reference to the 2008 election: "I felt very safe with Bush. And that was a prime issue for me."
Knowing what we know now, how, under President Obama, U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have stepped up drone attacks in Pakistan, decimated al-Qaida, cut off threats to America before they could take place, and, most of all, killed Osama bin Laden, the woman's statement has no basis in fact.
But she wasn't making a factual assertion. She was expressing a feeling. She bought the line the GOP was pushing in the campaign (and continued to push in 2009) that Obama wouldn't do enough to keep the country safe from terrorists, and that's how she felt.
What does that have to do with 2011? Well, the emotions being felt by many Americans now are equally pronounced. After three years of a down economy since the financial crisis, they're worried and angry. And all they see in government is dysfunction (putting aside for the moment the reason for the dysfunction). For example, in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 71 percent of respondents had a negative view of the debt ceiling deal, and they blamed both parties for the mess.
So like the woman who felt safer with Bush, voting decisions may not match up with the facts. Democrats have to recognize and work with the anger and fear that Americans are feeling. And they can best do that by demonstrating how they differ from the current crop of extremist, unreasonable Tea Party Republicans.
Which is why the president's threat this week to veto any deficit-reduction bill that doesn't include tax increases on the wealthy along with cuts to Medicare is so important. It's not just the issue (a vast majority agree with him), but for once he seems to be fighting for the American people. For once, it appears like he gets it. Is it too late? There is no way of knowing if voters (especially independents) have irretrievably soured on the president. But something had to change.
There is an anti-incumbent feeling now. Congress's approval rating is, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, a record low 12 percent. At this point, other than partisans on both sides, too many Americans think there is no difference between the parties. They think both parties are bought and paid for by special interests, and that they're not looking out for the American people. While it's true that too many Democrats are beholden to the corporations that fund their campaigns, there is a real difference between the parties. We saw the damage George W. Bush inflicted on the country for most of the 2000s, and we are seeing the far-right agenda being relentlessly pursued as we speak by the Republicans who control the House. If the GOP were to control Congress and the White House, things would get much worse for most Americans in a hurry.
I understand that President Obama is very interested in appearing above the fray, avoiding partisan battles. But the current GOP is interested in nothing but partisan battles. They are focused on defeating President Obama in 2012, not lowering unemployment or jump-starting the economy. Democrats in Washington, including the president, have to start doing a better job of addressing the fears and anger of the American people, while pointing to the differences in the policies of the two parties. They have to find a way to demonstrate that the Republicans' policies are not only potentially disastrous, but they seek to redistribute wealth upward, helping the rich get richer, destroying the middle class, and further pushing the wealth disparity to levels not seen since Hoover was president. And that means standing up to the Tea Party and forcing the debate back toward the center.
Since in office, the president has been more interested in policy than politics, but policy alone isn't enough anymore. As Jerry Brown discovered, things have changed. Many Americans don't see a difference in the parties. They're afraid, and they're angry. It's up to the Democrats, especially the president, to understand the lay of the land an act accordingly. If they don't, the anger- and fear-driven anti-incumbent fervor could drive the party from Washington, no matter what their policy positions are. And that would be disastrous for the American people.