Watching the House Republicans vote unanimously against President Obama’s economic stimulus package, I thought of Ronald Reagan, the air traffic controllers and the potential consequences for those who fail to recognize that one political era has given way to the next.

You may recall that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike in August 1981, seeking better working conditions and more pay. Reagan had been in office just seven months, and the nation still wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. The controllers’ union had legitimate gripes and calculated that the new president would deal rather than risk a disruption of air travel. The union knew that strikes by government workers were illegal, strictly speaking, but also knew that other organizations of federal employees had gotten away with similar walkouts in the past.

Reagan declared the strike a “peril to national safety” and gave the more than 13,000 air traffic controllers 48 hours to return to work. A few complied. When the deadline expired, Reagan fired the 11,345 controllers who had defied him. Two months later, the union was decertified. Years passed before any of the strikers were allowed to work as controllers again.

The point isn’t to revisit the merits of the strike or the wisdom of Reagan’s hard-line stance. The point is that the controllers’ union failed to realize that the dawn of the Reagan administration represented a rare fundamental shift in American politics. Under Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford or even Richard Nixon, the controllers might well have won their strike. Under Reagan, they had no chance — not just because of his stubborn resolve, but because American voters had given him a sweeping mandate for change.

That episode turned out to be just the beginning. Before Reagan, the economic beliefs that came to define the modern Republican Party — always cut taxes, always slash government spending, always deregulate — were associated with the conservative fringe. He brought them into the mainstream, effectively shifting the whole political spectrum sharply to the right.

Reagan’s new orthodoxy wouldn’t have been possible unless Americans had the sense that the old orthodoxy had reached a dead end. Carter had famously talked about “a crisis of confidence.” There was the feeling that America’s greatness was somehow slipping away, that things were out of control, that the old rhetoric was empty, that the old solutions wouldn’t solve anything, that we needed to try something new.

Um, is this ringing any bells for Republicans on Capitol Hill?

Scratch that question. When not one single, solitary Republican vote can be found in the House of Representatives to support the president’s $819 billion stimulus package, it’s pretty clear that the GOP caucus has been meeting in a soundproof room.

What I’ve been hearing from Republicans in both the House and Senate has been a kind of attenuated, distorted echo of the economic doctrine that the party has preached, if not always practiced, since the Reagan years. It’s perfectly appropriate, of course, to ask whether a specific spending proposal would have the desired stimulative effect; indeed, some items were removed from the stimulus bill for that reason. But underlying the Republican criticism has been a familiar formula: more tax cuts, fewer spending initiatives.

But Americans know that this philosophy has already taken us as far as it could. Americans know that taxes can only be cut by so much before the federal government’s effectiveness inevitably suffers. Americans know that spending money doesn’t necessarily mean wasting it. Americans know that the economic crisis means that taking the position that government is inherently oppressive, if not fundamentally evil, is now intellectually bankrupt, because government is the only instrument we have in the high-stakes attempt to induce financial and economic recovery.

If Republicans hadn’t broken the bank with drunken-sailorish spending during most of George W. Bush’s time in the White House, their complaints about the cost of the stimulus package and its impact on future deficits would be more credible. As things stand, we have to let actions speak: absolute solidarity among House Republicans in voting no.

It was a triumph of discipline over reason, of doctrine over observation. There is abundant evidence suggesting that we are in a new political era with new rules and a new lexicon. Those who ignore that evidence will have only themselves to blame if, like the air traffic controllers, they end up losing their jobs.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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