Loyal opposition

Congress has voted to give President George W. Bush carte blanche in dealing with Saddam Hussein and his real or potential weapons of mass destruction. If Bush is, as some suggest, playing a high-stakes game of "chicken" with Saddam, then perhaps Congress has strengthened his hand and increased the chances for a resolution of this conflict short of war. However, if Bush has some motive or plan other than Iraqi disarmament, then the vote in Congress will prove a good deal less responsible.

In the meantime, very important congressional elections are about to be held. Given the challenges facing the nation, it hardly seems wise to give Bush carte blanche both abroad and at home, yet that is very nearly what is at stake should the Republicans hold on to the House of Representatives and recapture (they need to regain only one seat) the Senate. The very real possibility of the entire federal government being in the control of the Republican Party should make Americans as well as Iraqis nervous.

No one who watched the World Trade Center fall and the Pentagon burn seriously doubts that the United States faces an unprecedented threat from Al Qaeda terrorists. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, the administration has demonstrated resolve and considerable competence. It is much less clear, however, whether the burdens of this "war on terror" will be shared equally at home or if the urgency for victory overseas is matched by an urgency to safeguard the economic security and livelihoods of those in whose name this "war" is being fought.

In addition to Al Qaeda and the presumed Iraqi threat, the nation is facing potentially devastating economic problems. The specter of a "double-dip" recession, or worse, looms. In truth, it looms larger for some-namely working people-than for others. Unemployment and underemployment are serious problems. As Lee Price, chief economist of the Senate Budget Office, told the New York Times (October 3), the number of people working as a proportion of the working-age population has fallen for the past twenty-three months. More telling, the number of workers who have given up looking for jobs has increased dramatically. Growth in the manufacturing sector has all but halted. The stock market continues its erratic plunge, having reached a five-year low earlier this month. Retirees, and baby-boomers on the verge of retirement, have seen their pensions reduced by one-third or more. Overcapacity has brought new business investment to a standstill. With the puncturing of the securities market bubble and revelations of widespread corporate fraud and mismanagement, investor confidence will be hard to restore. Responsible voices are now expressing fears about "deflation," something not seen since the Great Depression. Polls show that Americans consider the state of the economy more of a threat than Al Qaeda. If consumer confidence, fueled by low interest rates, falters and the housing bubble bursts, the U.S. could be facing the sort of economic stagnation that has plagued Japan for more than a decade. Already, state and local governments, starved of tax revenues because of the economic slump, are facing massive deficits and the prospect of draconian cuts in social services.

The Bush administration seems sublimely indifferent to such mundane concerns. The higher theology of military "preemption" and hard-nosed diplomacy is all they care to talk about. When pressed, the president and his advisers assure us the economy will right itself. More tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, who know how best to spend them, will solve the problem, we are told. Yet the growing number of those convinced of the danger of deflation see the situation quite differently. To prevent the economy from stalling and assets from evaporating, tens of billions of dollars need to be pumped into the economy now. Tax relief should be given not to the rich but to low- and middle-income earners, because they will readily spend the money, thus boosting the economy immediately. Unemployment insurance should be extended and expanded. The Federal Reserve should lower interest rates, already below 2 percent, even more. Some sense of stability and predictability must be restored to the economy, and the federal government can help make that happen.

Who is right, the administration or the economic doomsayers? No one knows. What is needed is a national debate on the question. But that is a debate the administration seems determined to avoid before the election.

Some suspect that Bush has shifted the focus from the elusive Al Qaeda to Iraq in order to divert attention from domestic economic and political problems. That, of course, is the sort of suspicion perennially directed at whoever occupies the White House. Whatever Bush’s motives, presidents can usually exercise more control over foreign than domestic policy. Rallying the nation in the face of an external threat is much easier than forging a new consensus on long-standing domestic social or economic conflicts such as health-care coverage or the solvency of Social Security. That certainly seems to be the Republican strategy at the moment.

Doubtless the current preoccupation with Iraq has made it hard for Democrats to press the case against Bush’s stewardship of the economy and his largely cosmetic response to the corporate fraud and accounting scandals. War talk drowns out most other political talk. That in turn has made it hard for the Democrats to alert voters to what is at stake in November’s elections. When Bush came into office, both houses of Congress had small Republican majorities. Given the disputed nature of the presidential election, many expected Bush to extend a hand across the aisle. Instead, the president pushed a highly ideological agenda, epitomized by a tax-cut program based on wholly unrealistic budgetary projections and designed, like the Reagan budgets, to starve the federal government of revenue for decades to come. Bush was equally partisan in his appointments and other policy initiatives, especially energy and the environment (as a result, moderate Vermont Republican Senator Jim Jeffords became an Independent, thus handing control of the Senate to the Democrats).

"Divided government" has often been criticized for creating paralysis in Washington. But divided government has its uses. Given the ideological extremism of much of the Republican Party on domestic issues and the influence of the "war party" in the present administration’s foreign policy, it is crucial that next month’s election result in a Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate. Loyal opposition can be a president’s truest ally. At this perilous time for the nation, divided government is better government.

Published in the 2002-10-25 issue: 
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