The dust has settled and the GOP will take control of both houses of Congress and several governorships, including here in Massachusetts. Yet, state ballot initiatives, such as increased minimum wage, which tilt left won. Despite the sweeping GOP win, many of those wins were not by sizable majorities.
My assessment begins with a lousy campaign by the Democrats. First, they let the GOP write the narrative for this election. It was about fear and incompetent governance. The party conveniently overlooked its own role in the government shutdowns. The GOP seemed to address the people’s concerns by saying that government is not on their sides, even though they had control of the House of Representatives and effective control of the Supreme Court. As a corollary, the Democrats allowed the GOP to pummel them without trying to counter-punch. Second, the economic record over the last six years, though not exactly, robust is not a bad one to promote. Six years ago economic fear gripped this nation. People had little confidence of their job security. The economy seemed in free-fall. Today, the stock market is at an all-time high. Unemployment is way down and the budget deficit is the smallest it’s been in decades. Granted there are still too many college graduates looking for jobs and wages are basically stagnant, but more on that later. They also could have made clear that the Affordable Care Act is actually working and making a difference in the lives of millions of people. Third, Democrats didn’t understand that despite Obama’s low poll ratings, his were higher than theirs and the GOP’s. They didn’t have to keep him at arm’s length. Fourth, the White House has done a terrible job of making its accomplishments known to the public.
The GOP ran a campaign that could best be described as what they are against, but other than the tired nonsense about incompetent and intrusive government they offered nothing substantive in terms of policy direction. So, if there is a positive, it forces scrutiny upon the GOP to use these two years to be for something constructive.
I don’t see that happening. The GOP managed to paper over their severe internal differences. The extreme elements of the party have an overall agenda that will ultimately cripple government and offering nothing to replace what will be gone. They refuse to take any constructive step to address climate change through legislation and can’t see how the government, which they loathe, will be forced to ameliorate its effects such as wildfires, reduced crop yields, without adequate resources.
Even if the Democrats did better, I don’t think we would have gotten much better governance. Somehow, our politics have evolved into an adversarial contest rather than a collaborative venture. Our increased polarization makes cooperation and collaboration even more difficult.
Though I am not registered with any party, I tend to vote Democratic because the GOP leadership has gone so far to the right that my vote has become more defensive in that I can’t see letting the GOP lead this nation. If they were less extreme, I’d consider it.
But I think both our parties are operating as though our country is still in the 1970s. We organize our foreign policy around our military as though there is an army to defeat and a nation to conquer. We think about economic policy without recognizing that capital has become global and doesn’t respect national boundaries and that technology’s impact has erased national borders as well. Technology has also redefined the way companies operate and have challenged entire industries (think journalism), which has had a negative impact on some workers. Basically, our political leadership needs to see this nation as it is and its contours in the future as it is shaped by external forces. It cannot see it nostalgically and wishfully desire it to return to the 1970s.
Here’s an example. The Affordable Care Act was probably appropriate for a workforce composition in the 1990s when people could earn a living working a full-time job. The bulk of the people could be covered by their employer. Today, however, too many people work multiple part-time jobs in order to earn enough money to live. What was once an adequate salary from one job has become inadequate and adequacy depends on getting two or more jobs and none of those jobs would provide health insurance. Another change is people who got paid by an employer in the 1990s are now doing the same job as a freelance or consultant because companies reduced their headcount in order to reduce their benefits. ACA doesn’t account adequately for this.
Washington is not working because leadership in both parties is out of touch with our lives. Furthermore, they’re not sure what can be done. And frankly, we’re not sure what can be done either. It’s hard to offer a suggestion when everything seems so undefined. But the adversarial nature of our politics where parties seek the upper hand at the expense of our nation’s health doesn’t foster any desire for collaboration.
I wish I could be optimistic about the next two years, but I’m not. I think the divisions within the GOP will contribute to their inability as a party to offer a vision for the future that breaks away from the worn out and dis-reputed mantra that government is the problem. While I think Democrats offer a more positive vision, I don’t see them risking anything to articulate bold changes in our current policies.
For what it’s worth, my recommendations for Washington are these:
- Restore the role of government to ensure the common good. This includes reducing income inequality through a combination of higher income taxes and increasing the minimum wage. It will also treat tax subsidies to corporations like we do assistance to families through social services; the effect is the same on the budget. Crassly, one is corporate welfare and the other is personal welfare.
- Address the financial stress families face. It will probably necessitate increasing benefits, but it will also entail restructuring programs to foster more personal responsibility and accountability. An example might be to encourage families currently receiving benefits to work by tapering off the benefits more gradually as their incomes rise. Address student debt because their debt makes wealth accumulation difficult.
- Reduce our military expenditures and shift them to domestic programs. If we subjected our military to the same cost-benefit analysis we do our social programs, I believe the military would receive low marks. We spend more money on our military than the next ten nations in the world combined and our outcomes have been less than decisive. Furthermore, we’ve organized our foreign policy on a perpetual war footing, which has only fostered a false sense of peace.
- Connect our criminal justice system to social dysfunction, especially within families. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We bear the costs directly through incarceration and indirectly through its impact on family structures because it can dramatically reduce family income. We can begin with sentencing reform, including revising our drug laws.
- Stop trying to repeal or dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Though imperfect, it is far better than what we had before its implementation. Ideally, we should have a single-payer system, but that may be a bridge too far in our current climate. (One should note that prior to Medicare the elderly was the poorest demographic cohort, but by the mid-1970s that was no longer. It was a universal health care program and it worked.) Make adjustments to ensure broader and cheaper coverage, especially in states that extended Medicaid or implement a government option similar to what was done in Massachusetts.
- Invest in infrastructure. Our roads are in sad shape. Many of our cities have old water and sewer systems. Our electrical grid needs a major technology upgrade. (Check out this article from the National Geographic.) Revamp our air traffic control. Invest in technologies which will diminish the effects of climate change. Pay for infrastructure now while interest rates are low. It will be a huge economic stimulus and will pay dividends for decades to come.
- Address climate change. The debate is over, really. But even if some refuse to believe that it is caused by human activity, it cannot be denied that our climate is changing and that we have to address some serious issues now, such as the water supply in the Southwest or rising sea levels in Miami.
- Immigration. Even the business community wants it addressed. Stop demonizing immigrants. Acknowledge that immigrants helped to build this nation and contribute to our economy today. Our system is broken. Stop posturing and get it done.
Rather than try to score points against each other or against the president, our political leadership should try working for the people who elected them.