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On Simple Consistency: Questions for My Republican Friends

Most of the time, I see spats between Republicans and Democrats the same way I would see a series between two sports teams, one of whom I marginally like and the other whom I strongly dislike. If the Democrats win, great; it opens up a tiny bit more political space, it’s probably a better policy than its GOP counterpart, but it doesn’t warm my heart the way a good revolution does.

But after seeing the GOP pull its hair out these last couple of weeks, chiefly over the labor battles in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, and after seeing my GOP friends contort themselves to the point of pretzelistic incoherence, I have some serious questions for them. This essay is mostly for them, and I’m honestly writing this for the sake of ecumenical dialogue. In the cause of increasing overall understanding, I’m taking off my democratic socialist hat and putting on a nice, pluralistic fedora. The paragraphs that follow all end with questions, and I’d appreciate some answers.

Of the many inconsistent positions taken by the GOP, or the policy-oriented sins of omission committed by their militant supporters, three are worth mentioning here. The first two are fairly recent, and have to do with fiscal responsibility and economic ethics. The third deals with foreign policy, and requires that we reach back into what’s left of our collective memory.

1. Who’s Your Socialist Now?

Froma Harrop deserves credit for calling out this discrepancy. GOP and tea party hero Michele Bachmann has generated giggles and rolled eyes with her argument agaist tax exemptions for breast pumps (she seems to be confusing welfare with tax exemptions, but that’s another story). Bachmann loves to scream “socialism” at the President at every available opportunity. Problem is, according to her own definition (which is, in the strict technical sense, inaccurate), Bachmann is a socialist herself. As Harrop puts it:

From 1995 to 2006, the Bachmann family glommed $251,000 off the farm program, according to the Environmental Working Group. Fiscal conservatives call these government handouts by their rightful name, corporate welfare.

But in the interests of fostering dialogue and good faith, I’m willing to put aside Bachmann’s own hypocrisy. Instead, following Harrop’s lead, I want to take a look at the respective budget proposals of the President and the House of Representatives. The GOP won the house on promises of fiscal responsibility. It’s been easy to paint a picture (however ahistorical and stripped of context) of the President spending too much money. As a corollary, it’s easy to paint a picture of the GOP as fiscally austere.  So the question for Republicans who think Obama is a socialist, or at least an irresponsible FDR wannabee: If the President is what you say he is, how come his budget proposal eliminates $4.25 billion from corporate farm subsidies over 10 years, while the House GOP budget proposal doesn’t even touch those subsidies? I mean, let’s assume for the sake of argument it’s a good idea to cut billions from programs for child nutrition, Planned Parenthood, education, job training, and public television. Why not also cut $4.25 billion in subsidies to big ag? Can you make a positive argument in favor of continuing those subsidies? Can you demonstrate that the social effect of those subsidies is more important than the money that goes to WIC? And if you can, why can’t the House?

2. No-Bid Contracts for Fat Cat Players

We all know that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a divisive figure who, in his first moments of office, began a plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public service unions in his state. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this is a good idea, that the 100,000 demonstrators in Madison are wrong, and that Walker is a maligned, misunderstood genius. Let’s assume his attack on unions actually has something to do with his state budget.

Paul Krugman brings to our attention some of the other things included in Walker’s fiscal reform package, and here’s one of the items:

And then there’s this: “Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”  What’s that about? The state of Wisconsin owns a number of plants supplying heating, cooling, and electricity to state-run facilities (like the University of Wisconsin). The language in the budget bill would, in effect, let the governor privatize any or all of these facilities at whim. Not only that, he could sell them, without taking bids, to anyone he chooses. And note that any such sale would, by definition, be “considered to be in the public interest.”

The conservative NewsBusters web site left-baited Krugman over the piece, but neglected to mention Walker’s crony-socialist desire to sell off utilities without bids or legislative oversight.

So the question for Republicans who support Governor Walker, who hate public service employee unions, and who think criticism of the Koch Bros is out of line: Why does your heroic Governor want to sell off public utilities without bids to political cronies who contributed thousands of dollars to his campaign? If he’s truly fiscally responsible, and assuming privatization is a good thing (a stretch, but remember I’m wearing the fedora), why not initiate a fair, transparent bid process? Why not try to make as much money as possible and, as a matter of public policy, make sure the utilities are sold to the best, most responsible firms? Why no bids? Why no transparency? Isn’t competition a good thing in a free market? Doesn’t your argument against statism hinge on these very types of examples: political leaders giving treasure away to their supporters without being publicly accountable?

3. Criticizing the President in a Time of War

This one’s a real ass-kicker for those whose heads are still spinning from the vitriolic, rhetorically violent years of 2000-2008. During that time, conservatives were calling for anti-war dissenters to be thrown in jail, tried for treason, even executed.

Then, Obama was elected. The difference in attitude toward public dissent was so palpable as to defy coherence. So my question, for my conservative pals, is: What the heck happened?

Surely you remember when Zell Miller, a turncoat Democrat, made the case for treason in his 2004 speech at the Republican National Convention:

While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.
Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.

Perhaps you recall when Sean Hannity, who now criticizes Obama seventeen times a day or so, found such criticism treasonous when it was levelled at Bush. So did Pat Robertson.

So the question for Republicans: Why isn’t Obama entitled to the same shield from criticism? Is he not the Commander-in-Chief? Do we still not have men and women in combat? Is the mission no longer worthy?

This is a particularly hard pool for me to swim around in, since I oppose these occupations, and believe Obama is both a cynic and a coward for failing to correct Bush’s mistakes, or to hold Bush and his henchmen accountable for war crimes. The standard, for me, is obvious: Criticize any President, or any other political leader, at any time, for any reason, because you’ll never prove that such criticism uniquely places our troops in harm’s way (and if they are unwarrantedly in harm’s way because the ruling class lied about their justifications for deploying those troops, the blood is on the hands of the deployers, not the dissenters). But, of course, I’m wearing the fedora. Republicans, please tell me: Why is it now okay to criticize the President, to call for his impeachment, to question his commitment to U.S. soldiers and their mission, under the same circumstances as those existing in the last administration?

Those are my questions. In good faith, with smiling face, and willingness to listen and drink beer with you, I await your answers, Republican friends. I’ll be here.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.