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Posted 22 June 2011
Obviously I am biased, but scanning the NY Times each day I am stunned by the egregiousness of Republican legislators. They have marshaled an unyielding opposition to Obama's appointments at every level of government to an extent unprecedented in historical memory.
For example, Peter Diamond, the Nobel Prize-winning economist nominated by President Obama to a seat on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, just announced he was withdrawing from consideration for the position. Given that Diamond is an expert on labor market theory, one would think that since the rate of unemployment has just risen, his expertise would be a plus. But that's too logical for a Republican Senator like Alabama's Richard Shelby, whose lame, politically motivated justification for his opposition, is that Diamond's work had focused on pensions and labor markets rather than specifically on monetary policy.
And then there is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law school professor who once headed the Congressional Oversight Panel on Tarp, and actively took on Wall Street, the Treasury Department, and the Fed, which made her a liberal heroine. Warren has been working to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she sees as acting as a cop on a beat enforcing basic rules to govern credit cards and the mortgage industry. But she is under fierce attack by conservatives as a “totalitarian liberal,” leading a large block of Democrats in the House of Representatives to urge President Obama to make her head of the new consumer agency as a recess appointment if Republicans threaten to obstruct her nomination. But Senate Republicans have vowed to stop even that.
Beyond putting up a roadblock in the way of appointments, the Republicans are blackmailing the administration about raising the debt ceiling - the country's legal borrowing limit. They will only allow the raising of the debt limit if it is accompanied by some dramatic spending cuts - adhering to their political mantra, that it's government spending and high taxes which are the cause of all our economic problems. So we have a Republican Party that has given up any pretense at compassion, but uses the fiscal crisis to promote serving the rich at the expense of the poor. In liberal philanthropist George Soros's words: “The Republicans have gained control of the agenda, and they are promoting a misleading narrative: everything is the government's fault.” Consequently, the Democrats and Obama are forced on the defensive, probably soon to offer concessions that may gut a whole host of social programs, and turn us into an even more unequal society.
The only recent bipartisan moment came when Congress gave full-throated, uncritical, and politically self-interested support for Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu's unyielding and self-righteous speech where he claimed, “Judea and Samaria are not under occupation.” There is a part of myself that finds Congress's passionate commitment to Israel emotionally satisfying. But I also know that there won't be even a chance for peace, unless Netanyahu, with his extreme right wing coalition partners, moves from his hard-line stance on the settlements and East Jerusalem. Justice and political necessity make compromise an imperative in the Middle East. Of course, given Hamas's radical Islamism and support of terrorism, there is always the possibility that it won't make a difference what Israel does.
However, what strikes me watching Congress react to Netanyahu's speech is how little capacity it has to deal cogently with any of the profound problems that confront us - be they domestic or foreign. And though I think the Republicans bear the lion's share of responsibility for the situation we face, the Democrats are no profile in political courage. There are times when the whole political scene feels so disheartening that I just want to turn away altogether.
Looking at state politics, there is also little cause for joy. In November the Republicans captured a majority of the nation's governor mansions and state legislatures. It has meant that Tea Party-affiliated governors like Rick Scott of Florida have canceled a $2 billion federal high-speed rail project, while others like Christie of New Jersey and Kasich of Ohio have promoted anti-environmental regulation and activity. That is only the tip of the iceberg in the governors' attempt to ram through a right-wing agenda in their first months in office -attacking unions, slashing jobless benefits, and pushing voter ID bills.
I wish I could say that my own shrewd, pragmatic governor, Andrew Cuomo, (though far from a right-winger) has been a beacon of liberalism. Cuomo has been liberal on social issues, from gay marriage to the unjust deportation of immigrants, but the state budget that he passed drastically slashed funds to schools and local communities - cuts that were deeper than necessary because of Cuomo's refusal to extend a tax on New York's wealthiest residents. There is also his proposed pension legislation where some cuts seem justified and necessary, and others, like raising the retirement age from 62 to 65, should be fought. Cuomo has also a proposed ethics bill, whose passage will be a giant step towards making New York State's legislature less dysfunctional, but whose success can't be guaranteed.
These are hard times for state and local governments, and given the precarious condition of our politics, one has to be grateful that Cuomo has basically taken a centrist path. Still, he offers little to inspire one, but that's probably asking too much.