WASHINGTON — War is a continuation of Republican economics by other means. And if Clausewitz never quite said that, well, Clausewitz didn’t spend the last couple of weeks in Washington.
There are really two Washingtons these days. One is bound together, tenuously, by a kind of camaraderie of apprehension. No one is fully certain what to do when the mail arrives; hardly anyone is certain — despite the bravado of the hawks and the indignation of the doves — of how best to counter the ongoing threat of mass terror.
Then there is the other Washington, where September 11 is just the latest pretext for Republicans to reward their fattest funders. The wartime-stimulus legislation that the House passed last week on virtually a straight party-line vote (216-214) does nothing to stimulate the economy, while blithely dynamiting whatever unity a country requires in wartime. The president‘s party has just told most of the nation — and most certainly those working-class precincts that are home to America’s soldiers, sailors and firefighters — that war requires it to sacrifice that the rich may live better.
The numbers in the bill speak — make that, scream — for themselves. Of the slightly more than $100 billion the Republicans set aside to fix the economy, 64 percent goes to corporations, in the form of lower taxes on profits or quicker write-offs of new investments, or as a rebate for the minimum taxes they‘ve paid in recent years. With the economy spiraling downward, lower taxes on nonexistent profits aren’t likely to spur a recovery, however; neither are accelerated depreciations on new machinery at a time when consumer demand is too weak for any sane CEO to be buying new machinery. The rebate on the alternative minimum tax isn‘t conditioned on corporations making any stimulative investment at all; it simply throws $1.4 billion at IBM and $670 million at GE, among the 30 mega-companies now slated to receive public dollars that they’re free to funnel overseas or simply hoard in interest-bearing accounts.
The next biggest recipients are high-income taxpayers, who will receive tax cuts constituting 19 percent of the total package. Never mind that the tax rebates Bush showered on these folks this summer had no discernible effect in stopping our slide toward recession. Then, at the Democrats‘ insistence, the House apportioned 13 percent of the total to tax cuts for low- and moderate-income taxpayers. Which leaves — drum roll, please — a stunning 3 percent in benefits and tax cuts for the unemployed, for those tourism and service and manufacturing workers whose jobs have vanished amid the general crash in consumer confidence and spending.
And there’s more! Though no more than 40 percent of unemployed Americans even qualify for our Swiss-cheese system of unemployment insurance, the bill neither extends eligibility to the majority of the laid-off, low-income or part-time workers who routinely fail to qualify, nor raises the average weekly benefit over its current $230, nor lengthens the average period of eligibility for those lucky enough to reel in that princely sum beyond 26 weeks. But the corporate and high-bracket tax cuts, you‘ll be happy to know, go rolling along for years.
In the long history of American economic downturns, the GOP’s stimulus package stands quite alone. Our previous wars have been paid for by higher taxes on wealth; our previous recessions countered by aid targeted to the needy. Even in the pre-progressivity days of the Civil War, the rich at least had to pony up $300 — real money in those days — to avoid conscription. If Bush had been a president when Fort Sumter was shelled, we‘re compelled to conclude, he would have paid the rich $300 to duck the draft. (”Who do you trust with your money? A government dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal? Or yourselfs? We trust yourselfs.“)
For the Republicans, then, the war provides just one more opportunity to cut taxes for their financial base. When the first round of tax cuts for the rich were enacted this summer, administration officials apologized to corporate lobbyists for their inability to reduce business taxes at that time, and vowed to slash those taxes at the next opportunity. How they came to construe terror and recession as just such an opportunity rates a chapter in a survey of political pathology, but never let it be said that they failed to keep their promise to the corporate lobbies.
The Democrats will counter with their own bill in the Senate — that is, if they can keep their own Save-the-Rich caucus (Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman and poster child) from screwing it up. Their bill spends more money on the unemployed, with special emphasis on workers in the hemorrhaging sectors, and actually revives the idea of public works.
For the moment, the Democratic posture is to appear the real party of national unity, while the Republicans come off as compulsive sectarians. This is partly a matter of conviction: The Democrats genuinely support the war, particularly with the constraints that our need for allies has placed on any cowboy fantasies the White House may harbor. This is partly a matter of calculation: The Republicans look grotesque practicing their politics as usual (or would if the media would take a break from reporting on every errant anthrax spore to cover what’s really going on here), while the Democrats appear anything but rabid. Besides, the ground has shifted beneath both parties: Two-thirds of the American people, in one poll after another, now trust the government to do what‘s right — a level of confidence not seen since before the Vietnam War. Bush’s tax cuts were unpopular even before this sea change in governmental legitimacy, and the Democrats are hopeful that the Republican domestic agenda is a vast Rube Goldberg device that will eventually conk the Republicans woozy come Election Day, 2002.
But finally, this is also a matter of identity. The Republicans really are the party of the rich, in war and peace, sickness and health, for richer or — well, richer. The Democrats are not the party of the poor, of labor, of working- or middle-class Americans in that sense at all; they take far too much money from the rich themselves to have anything resembling a clear class identity.
Consider, for instance, the Democrats‘ performance on the airport-security bill that passed the Senate and is scheduled to come up for a vote in the House this Wednesday. At first glance, getting this bill this far looks like a clear Democratic victory, one that’s rooted in the fundamental shift in public opinion toward government. The one contentious issue in the bill is whether to federalize airport-security screeners — currently almost entirely nonunion minimum-wage employees who work without breaks or hope of advancement, and who tend to move up to fry-cook jobs at McDonald‘s after about six months looking at luggage. In the wake of September 11, this is now a system with no visible public support: Fully 82 percent of Americans, in one recent Washington Post poll, favored federalizing airport screening.
While Senate Republicans went along with the bill, there remained a strain of Texas conservatism that was resistant to its logic: House GOP leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay have been rustling up votes against it, and only under pressure did the White House finally announce that W. would reluctantly sign the bill if it federalized the screeners. But Senate Republicans exacted a price for their support. As amended by Montana’s Conrad Burns, the bill still may be an ideological step forward, but contains enough anti-immigrant and anti-worker provisions that it should give the Democrats pause. It requires that all screeners be American citizens of at least five years‘ standing — a far stiffer requirement than you find in the armed forces, which are home to 48,000 noncitizens today. Nor does it provide security screeners with any right to form unions — quite unlike the heavily unionized police officers in virtually every major American city. In consequence, one of the great odd-bedfellows alliances has come together to oppose the bill, with officials of the Service Employees International Union — one of the most progressive and effective unions in the land, which has successfully organized the screeners at LAX and San Francisco — making common cause with Tom DeLay to try to kill the bill in the House.
Odd though this tale may be, it illustrates the asymmetric commitments of the two parties: The GOP will let nothing stand in its way to help its business allies, while the Democrats periodically blow off their core allies in labor — usually, though not in this case, in deference to business. (In this particularly complex instance, the Dems acquiesced in having anti-union, anti-immigrant language inserted into what remains an important political and policy breakthrough.) Inconstant Democrats are indifferent to at least some of their friends; too-constant Republicans are indifferent to almost all of their nation — and increasingly display a defiant, dull imperviousness to reality.