never agree with Dick Cheney. Well, hardly ever. But he was spot-on last week in his verdict on Senate Republicans’ opposition to a survival plan for the American auto industry. "It's Herbert Hoover time," he said, mordantly channeling the theme song of a hallmark children's show of the 1950s: "It's Howdy Doody time."
Like Cheney (but unlike Frum) I'm old enough for the show to have been part of my childhood DNA. The reference is almost appropriate: The Republicans' behavior on the auto industry bailout could easily be dismissed as childish if only it weren't so dangerous.
Their vote reflected a black-and-white ideology of free markets versus government—seasoned by a knee-jerk enmity to organized labor. The Republicans demanded several pounds of the average auto worker's pay, which they exaggerated in size and impact. The misleading figure they often cited to represent an auto worker’s compensation—$73/hour—has far less to do with current wages then with legacy costs including health and pension benefits owed to retirees. That kind of money doesn't reach anyone on today's assembly lines. In any case, the decisions that imperil the industry were made in boardrooms, not union halls.
Republican Senators also engaged in a bout of short-term populism that reflected the polling of the moment: Voters disaffected by the $700-billion bailout of Wall Street said they were against $14 billion more for the auto companies. The voters’ attitudes could change instantly, of course, if the Republican ideologues were actually to get their way. As General Motors, then Chrysler and probably even Ford was forced into bankruptcy, the likely outcome wouldn't just be a restructured industry. Markets would collapse, companies and jobs would be annihilated across the Midwest and a second Great Depression might well descend on the globe.
The foreign-owned automakers, with plants largely located in the South, whose interests Republicans were supposedly serving, would not be immune from the downward economic spiral. We saw a clear sign of that on Monday when Toyota cancelled the start of production at its new plant in Mississippi. Union-busting conservatives can't aid foreign companies by beggaring the Big Three. If they did, not only would they risk a general contagion, but you can bet public opinion would turn fiercely against Republicans, who would pay the price in 2010.
Last week, Senate Republicans could exercise their ideology without economic or political consequence. But they will face a more serious choice when President Obama takes office accompanied by a new Senate in which Democrats need only one or two Republican defectors to break a filibuster. The Republicans will be tempted to re-live the confrontational approach of 1993 and 1994, when a new Democratic President faced Republican hostility across the board. The result was a Republican landslide in the mid-term election. But this is a very different period; there is a national sense of urgency that transcends normal partisan and ideological boundaries.
In this climate, opposition for its own sake is likely to yield electoral pain, not gain. The accurate model may be the early years of the New Deal, when Republicans, frozen in their anti-government ideology, became an increasingly impotent minority. (The brakes that finally slowed the Roosevelt revolution in the late 1930s were applied not by the diminished and enfeebled GOP, but by Southern Democrats.)
Can Republicans bail themselves out of their past and their own pre-conceptions? Can they bring themselves to cooperate? That's what John McCain suggested this weekend; but of course, many Republicans suffer from the delusion that McCain fell short in November because he wasn't conservative enough. Similarly, they’ve reacted to the economic meltdown with the patently false assertion that it's government's fault, or with the economically illiterate proposition that we should slash the federal budget now.
If in the months ahead Republicans reincarnate an identity it took them forty years or more to shed, they will make themselves increasingly irrelevant while Obama remakes the country and realigns the political landscape. This time, the opposition party that does little but oppose won't succeed at the polls. It won't be "Herbert Hoover time" for the American economy. But it might be for the Republican Party.
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