I’ve gotten a lot of intelligent and impassioned push-back from liberal readers for confessing (e.g., here, here and here) that I don't share, and can’t quite fathom, their indignation at the way Republicans have opposed the Democratic agenda since Obama’s election. It’s not that I support Republican opposition on public policy grounds. But I'm unable to summon up the conviction that Republicans ought to be ashamed of themselves, not only for being pigheaded, but for being civically irresponsible. Since when do opposition parties have a civic obligation not to oppose the other party’s legislative agenda?
Here’s another way of putting my point that came to me in the course of a running exchange with an anonymous commenter on this post. It turns on a little recent political history.
On the morning after Bush’s reelection in 2004, it looked like he’d won a surprisingly strong mandate that extended not only to the way he was prosecuting the Iraq war, but to making good on his promise to move us toward an “ownership society.” The first step Bush planned for us to take down that path, and the principal legislative priority of his second term, was creating self-funded private Social Security accounts as to which each taxpayer and his family would be the exclusive beneficiaries.
Like most liberals, I thought that was a bad idea. The point of Social Security was to insure every working family against the vicissitudes of a volatile economy. To the extent Social Security was privatized, daunting risks would be put back on the shoulders of people who lacked the wherewithal to insure against them privately. Granted, a system with private accounts could conceivably raise the expected rate of return on Social Security contributions and mitigate the political risk to younger workers that a future Congress will cut their benefits by giving them each a property right to the money in their private account. Those advantages had induced some Democrats, including one as influential as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to express cautious support for the idea of partial privatization in the 1990s. But to the extent Social Security was privatized, contributors would have to bear the substantial risk that their expectations would be disappointed by a down market when they were obliged to liquidate the securities in their private account.
Of course, blanket opposition or abject acquiescence weren’t the only options open to Democrats. They could have accepted Bush’s open invitation to compromise by letting Republicans have modest private accounts in exchange for an increase in the rate of payroll taxes for higher income-tax brackets, or a widening of income-base to which the present rates apply, means-testing benefits, etc. Yet congressional Democrats refused the invitation to negotiate for at least two reasons: first, they feared that consenting to even small private accounts would put them on a slippery slope to an ownership society; and second, they sensed Bush was politically vulnerable because he’d misinterpreted his electoral mandate.
I remember being pleased to see Democrats united in intransigent opposition to the Bush plan and not being bothered seeing some Democrats retract their prior support for private accounts. In hindsight, I can’t help being mighty impressed by the political acumen of the Democratic congressional leadership. You might even say that the political defeat they administered to Bush was his Waterloo.
I’m sure everybody knows by now where I’m heading: As far as civic responsibility goes, how is what Republicans have done to Obama over the last two years any different from what the Democrats did to Bush in 2005?