It's easy to make fun of many Republican candidates in the 2010 election season (especially when their slate includes Christine O'Donnell). But American conservative politicians have a strong following, and their ideals and programs deserve serious consideration.
Because I take my own (fairly liberal) political ideals very seriously, I've made an effort during this election season to listen as sympathetically as I could to a variety of conservative voices. I've paid more attention to populist voices than intellectual ones -- that is, I read conservative blogs, watched Fox News and listened to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on the radio, and didn't bother reading the National Review, or the New York Times Book Review's Buckley-esque political pieces. I was more interested in hearing from the Tea Partiers than the Ivy League.
I paid attention to our most popular conservatives to see if they had anything to teach me, and also to see if I had anything to teach them. On the positive side, I was able to appreciate their emphasis on principles -- liberty, economic simplicity, government by Constitution. I was also able to appreciate the sense of humor and rebellion that helps to explain the popularity of some conservative commentators.
On the negative side, I discovered that today's Republican party -- the one that's expected to take over a majority in the House of Representatives after election day -- has shockingly little substance when it comes to fixing the economy. You thought Christine O'Donnell was an airhead? Listen to John Boehner try to explain how he's going to reduce the staggering budget deficit and keep tax breaks for the wealthy at the same time. It's as if he really thinks you can pay off the national debt with words.
Day after day, hour after hour, conservative broadcasters and politicians claim that they will get our economy in order by cutting entitlements and unnecessary spending. There's a problem with this, and it's called mathematics. The numbers don't add up. Taxpayer-funded entitlements and unnecessary expenditures are offensive -- but they don't amount to a significant portion of the federal budget. Even if we managed to cut spending along the lines of what the most extreme conservatives are suggesting, we'd still need to increase taxes on the wealthy to balance the budget.
It's an uncomfortable truth for the Republican party that its hero Ronald Reagan only managed to reduce taxes by making the budget deficit worse, by borrowing from the future. That's the same program, unfortunately, that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment have: pretend to cut costs, and keep spending money we don't have. For all its anti-spending rhetoric, the Republican party is addicted to spending. The Democratic party is addicted to spending too, but at least Obama is willing to admit that we need to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for our spending. The Republicans want to keep putting it on the credit card.
Some people think "tax" is a dirty word. I don't -- not if the taxes are well-spent. The reason there is so much popular outrage about taxes these days is not because taxation itself is wrong, but because the horrific 2008/2009 taxpayer-funded bailouts of corrupt banks and mega-corporations was so completely unfair. I feel this outrage too.
But which party has the better program to fix our broken economy and make sure disasters like the 2008 crash don't happen again? It's one of the most vital questions for any American voter to consider. The Democratic party under Barack Obama wants to make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, and wants to enact a fresh and effective set of reforms and regulations to prevent the kind of corporate abuses -- mortgage-backed securities, hedge funds, massive executive bonuses and salaries -- that led to the crash of 2008. I think that's a reasonable plan, and I support Barack Obama today as wholeheartedly as I ever have.
The Republican party, it seems, wants to solve America's problems by giving corporations a freer hand to increase profits and growth, and reducing the role and scope of government. It's as if they think the government was solely to blame for the economic crash of 2008. (It's also as if they think we won't notice that these same corporations are funding their advertising.)
Sure, the government did a terrible job of preventing the crash of 2008, and in some terrible ways contributed to it. But let's not forget that it was not the government but rather the unregulated growth-obsessed free market -- banks, insurance firms, mortgage giants -- that actually caused the crash. We need to make sure this doesn't happen again, and we won't get there by having fewer regulations. We'll get there by having better ones.
I respect the passion and convictions of many of today's conservative thinkers and politicians. I think they deserve to be taken seriously, and criticized constructively.
But, as of today, they don't seem to have much more than outrage on their side. Look at their policies, and it's hard to see how they've matured at all since George W. Bush was President.
We all saw how well that worked out.