THE NEW YORK TIMES
For the Republicans, these are mouth-watering numbers. Nothing seems to stand in their way. But to triumph next November, they need a plausible presidential candidate and a program that appeals to the broad electorate, not just the party faithful who will select a nominee after January’s caucuses in Iowa kick off the season of primary elections. And this, in turn, poses a question. Are Americans looking for nothing more than a safe alternative to a president who has failed? If so, they might do worse than to go for Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and a candidate in the Republican primaries last time: a known quantity with what looks like a safe pair of hands. Or are they hankering after a revolution?
The Republican Party finds it hard to get the answer because it has just undergone a revolution of its own. One of the main things that snapped the party out of its doldrums after the debacle of 2008 was the eruption of the Tea Party movement, a largely self-organizing group of small-government conservatives who believe that big government has throttled the freedoms bequeathed by the Founders.
Tea Partiers ascribe the party’s resurrection not only to Obama’s bad luck and “socialist” policies but also to their own determination to slay the Leviathan-state and restore lost liberties. The last person they want in the White House is another government-expanding “compassionate conservative” like George W. Bush. They yearn for a radical who will yank an out-of-control federal government up by its roots, or at least starve it of revenue, prune entitlements, chop away job-strangling regulation and free (or force) citizens to take more individual responsibility for their pensions and health care.
To many Republicans, this is an inspiring prospectus. And yet its very radicalism may become the party’s Achilles heel. It could enable Obama to win a second term by proclaiming that to vote Republican in 2012 is to opt for a reckless experiment that will tear down all the social protections Americans have come to take for granted.
Obama is already pushing this line. One of his chief exhibits is the Republicans’ comportment during the past year of divided government. The freshmen swept in when the Republicans recaptured the House in 2010 dragged a Republican caucus that was already conservative by historical standards farther to the right. One of the first things the new majority did was to pass a bill repealing what they call Obama’s “job killing” health care law, or “Obamacare.” They also cheered through a radical budget plan drawn up by Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that would cut down entitlements and, in particular, would make the well-loved Medicare plan for the elderly much less generous. Voters do not like that idea.
Because the Democrats still control the Senate, neither the repeal of Obamacare, nor Ryan’s plan, nor many of the other bills the House has passed has become law. The year of gridlock reached a low point in the midsummer showdown over the federal debt ceiling. The Republicans boast that, by refusing to raise the amount the government could borrow until the Democrats agreed to reduce spending, they forced Obama to make a belated start on tackling the deficit. But they also brought the United States close to its first-ever default, prompting Standard & Poor’ s to downgrade its AAA credit rating to AA+. Though none of the politicians emerged with much credit in voters’ eyes, a poll afterwards showed that more (72 percent) were inclined to disapprove of how the Republicans had handled the crisis than blamed the Democrats (66 percent) or Obama (47 percent).
The Republicans say they won a victory. But the showdown exposed the party to the charge of recklessness, highlighted its rigidity on taxes and seemed to reveal a rift. At one point John Boehner, the speaker and nominal leader of the Republicans in the House, started to talk to Obama about a “grand bargain” entailing not only the spending cuts the Republicans insisted on but also the tax increases Democrats call unavoidable to protect vital programs. These talks broke down, however, leaving the impression that the pragmatic Boehner had been overruled by the anti-tax ideologues in his own caucus.
Even the sainted Ronald Reagan was willing to raise taxes when circumstances required. Most of today’s Republican lawmakers have signed an explicit pledge never to do so, even though this puts the party on the wrong side of public opinion. Most voters tell pollsters they favor a balanced approach to the deficit, meaning tax increases as well as spending cuts, with a bigger share of the taxes coming from the rich. And this issue is not going away.
THE NEW YORK TIMES