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It wasn’t until Barack Obama became president that Washington was able to forge a broad-based international anti-Iran coalition. Obama played out negotiations that exposed Iran’s intransigence and thus united most of the world behind crippling sanctions. The current Republican team talks, incredibly, about going back to the Bush plan.
A great deal has been written about the derangement of the modern Republican Party, with its toxic mix of legislative obstructionism, anti-tax and anti-regulation economics, religious-right social policies and blustering foreign policy. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these were really separate threads that emerged at different times and came into full expression only during the Obama presidency. They needn’t necessarily survive intact in a new GOP administration. But they might.
Current Republican economics is a legacy of the Reagan administration. Before Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt understood that capitalism is fundamentally amoral and needs to be regulated. Unchecked, business excess leads to vast human misery. A steady accretion of progressive taxation, labor protection, strong regulation and basic social insurance led to decades of smooth growth and widespread prosperity.
Reagan famously preached that government itself was the problem. Over eight years he cut the top tax rate from 70% to 28% and greatly reduced regulation to free up business. The result: three decades of steadily mounting government debt, spiraling inequality and an increasingly unstable business cycle.
There was a cynical aspect to the strategy. The best way to prove that government was bad was to govern badly. By gutting business regulations and then appointing pro-business officials to do the regulating, the idea that government could improve the average citizen’s life was discredited.
In reality, reducing government was only a slogan. Alongside reduced business regulation, the Reagan revolution tried to expand government intrusion in private lives. The goal was to get government out of the marketplace and into the bedroom.
And yet that, too, was mostly talk. The religious right enjoyed its strongest growth not under Republican presidents but when Democrats Bill Clinton and Obama occupied the White House. In opposition, paranoid extremism became the GOP calling card. In office, Republican presidents kept the religious right on a leash.