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The Party of No Ideas

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Would it be rude to ask whether the Republicans have any new proposals to save the country from this worsening recession? The question arises not because anyone expects the minority party to burst forth with creative ideas, but because conservatives in Congress and the media seem so determined to thwart or stall the economic stimulus plans of President-elect Barack Obama.

To listen to the Senate Republicans and their leader, Mitch McConnell, is to hear once more the old nostrums of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, along with pleas for "bipartisan input" and complaints about "wasteful spending." The House Republicans chime in with the same drearily familiar themes, as the minority leader, John Boehner, warns against "irresponsible spending on government programs" and urges the new administration to put any stimulus bill online for "at least one week" while making sure there are no "special-interest earmarks."

Leaving aside the boilerplate about wasteful federal spending -- which never troubled the Republicans on either side of Capitol Hill when they were legislating record deficits -- these recommendations seem harmless and pointless. Putting the stimulus bill online for public comment sounds like something Obama might want to do. He scarcely needs advice about communicating with the public from the other party. Abolishing earmarks was the dominant economic theme of the Republican campaign last fall, which was soundly rejected by voters. Awful as certain porky earmarks may be, they represent a miniscule portion of the federal budget -- and they remain just as irrelevant to the global economic crisis as they were three months ago.

So is that all? Reviewing the recent remarks of McConnell and Boehner, it is impossible to find much substance that addresses the problems of rising unemployment, falling demand, shrinking production and disappearing credit. There is no fresh policy platform and no honest effort to confront the costs of deregulation and disinvestment.

Expecting an original thought from the politicians who lead the Congressional caucuses may be unfair, but the dearth of ideas extends across the precincts of the right, from commentators and media outlets to think tanks.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance, provides no new proposals for coping with the recession. According to its policy analysts, the new administration should simply do what conservatives were demanding long before the bottom fell out. They want extensions of the 2001 and 2003 tax reductions "for as long as possible," or better yet, to "make them permanent." And they want further reductions in tax rates on individuals, small businesses and corporations through 2013, preferably "lowering the top rate by 10 percentage points and reducing rates by similar amounts for lower-income-level taxpayers," whatever that means.

Much the same kind of material can be found in right-wing commentary on websites and in magazines, where the argument revolves around silly claims that federal spending cannot increase employment and demand, or that the New Deal was a failure because it didn't end unemployment and poverty forever after those first hundred days. In short, conservatives are clamoring for more of the same and nothing but the same.

When read carefully, their real message is that the best thing to do for America is to do nothing at all, except to maintain or worsen the inequities of our tax system. Then at some point in the future, perhaps at the end of this year or next, the marketplace will work its magic and growth will resume.

According to the right's leading economic analysts, such passive policies will result in the best outcome someday. After all, they say, every other recession in American history ended eventually, a truism that offers very little comfort to someone losing a home today.

Such calls for government to do nothing at all tend not to be heard from anyone who must seek reelection next year, but show up in financial press editorials or buried in policy papers. Yet inertia is the right's program, whether we listen to the Republican Congressional leaders, the Heritage analysts or the conservative pundits. They are determined to sabotage constructive action by the new administration. They cannot let go of their ideology, regardless of the pain that will be inflicted as the recession deepens.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.


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See Other Commentary by Joe Conason.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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