Those Frightful Partisans

In the Right

Somebody should tell the propaganda bosses of the left that Halloween is over; maybe they would stop trying to terrify us with their tales of Republican partisanship.

Over the past two weeks, one could hardly turn to the opinion page of any national newspaper without getting spooked by the frightful specter of partisan wrangling. The details of the scare story varied—here it was economic stimulus, there it was airport security legislation—but the underlying theme was always the same: the Bush administration and the Congressional GOP leadership are exploiting the current crisis to advance their political agendas.

Witness, for example, MIT economics professor Paul Krugman’s recent rant in The New York Times. Krugman begins with the smug declaration that Bush’s strategy is to treat crises not as “problems to be solved,” but as “opportunities to advance an agenda that [has] nothing to do with the crisis at hand.” He excoriates Republican proposals for economic stimulus as a ploy to “lock in permanent tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, using the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse.” And making sure to mock the pre-Sept. 11 agenda for good measure, Krugman offers the baffling claim that Bush’s plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling had little or nothing to do with electricity generation, leaving us to assume that it was motivated by political considerations instead.

What is striking about Krugman’s bombast isn’t so much that he disagrees with Republicans, but that he so self-righteously refuses even to admit the possibility that their agenda has anything at all to do with solving national problems. Which is strange, because there is a strong case to be made for GOP policies.

Tax cuts should play a part in any stimulus package, regardless of whatever additional relief is given to the poor. (And I hasten to add that Bush has advocated expanded welfare benefits and rebate checks for low-income workers—although Krugman and his cronies wouldn’t want you to know it.) Accelerating the marginal rate cuts approved earlier this year would provide an incentive to work and invest. And the corporate sector, which has dropped sharply, would respond favorably to a fiscal stimulus, especially given that there are no signs of significant excess capacity. Krugman should know these arguments, but his spook tactics are aimed at readers who don’t.


As to the Arctic: well, if the learned professor can’t figure out what increasing the supply of domestic oil has to do with solving an energy shortage (or lessening our dependence on oil from the oh-so-stable Middle East), then one can’t help but think his students at MIT aren’t getting their money’s worth.

To be fair, I suspect writers like Krugman understand the Republican rationale even if they disagree with it. But why bother admitting that the enemies on your political hit list have reasons to think the way they do? It’s a lot more fun (and a whole lot more frightening) to paint them as mindless partisan zombies. Still, you’d think that when Republicans and Democrats come up with a bad idea together they’d share the blame, right?

Not necessarily. Not at Harvard, anyway. Take The Crimson’s recent editorial criticizing the GOP-led House version of airport security legislation, which lets airports contract with private companies to provide baggage screeners. (Private screeners, by the way, are widely used in Israel, where no plane has ever been hijacked. The issue isn’t who does the screening, but how effectively the government holds those people accountable.) After lambasting the bill as an example of “political bickering” and insinuating that Republicans had acted to line the proverbial pockets of unnamed security companies “who are Republican donors,” the editorial went on to slam the GOP for an amendment exempting oversize musical instruments from carry-on baggage restrictions.

Never mind that one of that amendment’s two co-sponsors, guitar- and trombone-player Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota., is a Democrat. He sits on the left side of the aisle, you see, and is therefore blameless. In an especially trenchant bit of analysis, the editorial decided that the musical instruments amendment was an example of the GOP leadership catering to special interests. And there you have it: what looked like an honest bipartisan blunder was in fact nothing but the old Republican-musician racket rearing its ugly head once again!

Summing up, then, here’s the main theme in all this incisive commentary: Since nobody could sincerely advocate Republican ideas, GOP proposals must be part of some perverse plot to sell the world to the special interests who traditionally fill Republican coffers (like trombonists). Sounds probable enough. It undoubtedly has something to do with that right wing conspiracy Hill and Bill used to fret about.

Democrats, on the other hand, are saintly paragons of bipartisanship who ought to be canonized any day now. So when Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee rammed their own favor-bloated stimulus plan to committee approval last Friday, all those preachers of partisan doomsday scarcely uttered a peep. Apparently it’s just fine to appropriate $5.5 billion for government purchases of, among other things, bison meat and watermelons—so long as the favored constituents happen to vote for the party of the jackass.

There are substantive debates to be had over the merits of cutting taxes, drilling in the Arctic, letting the private sector provide airport security and a host of other Republican priorities. But it is an act of intellectual dereliction to categorically dismiss those ideas as nothing but partisan favoritism. Winning the battle for public opinion requires a more sophisticated argument than prattling about how ghastly it is for Republicans to disagree with Democrats. Voices from the left ought to drop their scary stories and at least try to put up a real fight.

Jason L. Steorts ’01-’03 is a philosophy concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.