By Eugene Robinson
At this point, I’m almost ready to start rooting for the Republicans.
No, not really. There’s no “mercy rule” in politics. And anyway, the increasingly bitter ideologues who control what’s left of the Grand Old Party are so bereft of new ideas—and so determined to obstruct rather than collaborate—that I could never wish them well.
The thing is, though, that input from an effective, constructive opposition party would be good at this pivotal moment in the nation’s history. If only such a party could be found.
President Obama described this vacuum well at his “100 Days” news conference Wednesday evening. Republicans, he said, “can’t ... define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn’t work, and that the American people voted to change.”
Obama was responding to a question about Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats and the prospect of “one-party rule” in Washington. If Al Franken is eventually declared the winner of the Senate race in Minnesota—and he’s ahead of incumbent Norm Coleman by a few hundred votes, pending further court challenges—the Democrats will have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to go along with firm control of the House of Representatives.
Specter’s switch seems obviously based on arithmetic, not principle. About 200,000 Pennsylvanians left the Republican voter rolls between 2004—the last time Specter had to run for re-election—and 2008. Specter would have had a tough time in next year’s general election against a high-profile, well-funded Democratic opponent. But the real problem was that he might not have made it past the primary. The Pennsylvania Republican Party is not just smaller but more conservative, and polls showed that Specter’s apostasy on matters of Republican dogma made him all but defenseless against a challenge from the right.
The trend away from the GOP is being seen nationwide. The Pew Research Center reported Wednesday that just 23 percent of voters self-identify as Republicans, down from 30 percent in 2004. Democratic Party identification has increased only slightly, the Pew survey found, but the gap between the two parties has grown from three points to 12 points.
Most of those refugees from the Republican Party now call themselves independents, and a host of recent polls show that independents are continuing to support Obama and his policies. My reading of the poll numbers is that these centrist voters might not like every single thing Obama is doing, but they give him credit for understanding the problems our nation faces, crafting what look like plausible solutions and giving them a shot.
The one thing I can say about the Republicans is that they have been generally supportive of Obama in his approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On myriad domestic issues, however, they have been consistently obstructionist. As Obama said Wednesday: “Opposing our approach on every front is probably not a good political strategy.”
It’s also not good for the country. The economic crisis is of such depth and complexity that no one can be certain how best to tackle it. There’s a broad consensus in favor of health care reform, but the details remain to be worked out. Energy is a huge and complicated issue, but shifting to a “green” economy will involve big dislocations and require considerable sacrifice. None of this stuff is easy, and while I support Obama’s progressive approach in all these areas, I realize that vigorous debate can only increase the odds of getting the big policy choices right.
The Republican Party says it stands for individual rights, limited government, free enterprise, fiscal restraint, a strong defense—and it’s hard to argue with any of those broad principles. But they have to be interpreted in the context of today’s America, which is different from the America of 1989, or the America of 1889.
A modern Republican Party would have argued for a modified stimulus package, not a bunch of tax cuts that most economists agree couldn’t possibly do what a stimulus is supposed to do. A modern Republican Party would share in the Democrats’ outrage at the inefficiency and unfairness of our health insurance system, and would work to shape true reform rather than prevent it. A modern Republican Party would recognize that “no” is not the answer that Americans want to hear.
Come on, folks. Aren’t you supposed to believe that competition is good? Then why have you decided not to compete?
Eugene Robinson is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group