Friday, January 9, 2009

When it comes to democracy, messy is just fine

Let’s get it right this time, not just get there quickly.

That’s the message some Democrats in Congress are delivering to Barack Obama, and I believe they are right to do so.

Just a few months ago, Congress raced to pass a $700 billion bailout for the banking industry after the Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that dilly-dallying could cause a global economic meltdown. Well, guess what:

-- The global economy pretty much melted anyway.
-- No one really knows where the money from the first half of that plan went. It's a mere $350 billion, rouighly 10 times the entire federal budget for Homeland Security in 2008, five times that for Health and Human Services. But the banks have refused to account to Congress for how the the money was spent. Credit markets remain tight. And American taxpayers? They got bilked. It's a ludicrous situation.

Now some in Congress are balking at the broad-stroke provisions of the incoming president's $775 billion stimulus package. Liberal Democrats want the money to be spent on actions that directly create jobs, benefitting citizens and the country, not corporate moguls. They want to see the money spent building bridges, fixing highways, improving the energy grid, investing in the country’s infrastructure. They don't want to water down that investment by handing out one-time, $500, tax credits to citizens who likely won't spend that savings or so-called incentives to small businesses to ostensibly hire new workers. (I wonder if anyone would notice if those new hires got fired after the tax incentives were doled out.)

Republicans, who borrowed and deregulated America into this mess over the last eight years, have suddenly found religion, tut-tutting that a big stimulus would be irresponsible at a time of huge deficits. A hint of the heat scorching Obama from both sides could be seen in two articles on today's New York Times opinion pages. On the left, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes that Obama's economic plan "isn't as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact it falls well short of what's needed."

To his right (but still a moderate by Republican standards) is fellow Times columnist David Brooks. He writes, "The Obama presidency is going to be defined by audacious self-confidence ... This will be the most complex legislation in American history, and as if the policy content wasn't complicated enough, Obama also promised to pass it via Immaculate Conception -- through a new legislative process that will transform politics."

Are they talking about the same president? The same plan?

Whomever Obama listens to he needs to do something other than split the difference. As much as I admire Obama's instinct to forge broad-based coalitions, this isn't the time to give sops to a shrinking Republican minority that has pretty much wrecked the economy with its one-note mantra of "cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes."

I am no economist. But in the face of spiraling unemployment and a recession with no end in sight, I think it's safe to say we need bold leadership now, not collegiality. And if that’s offensive to the 3o percent of Americans who still think George Bush is hunky dory, well, that’s tough. The election made that clear. People are hurting. They want to try a new course. If Republicans try to block it, Democrats should flex their muscles and run over them. The public will be on their side.

But first Democrats need to encourage loud debate from all quarters among themselves. Some people are wringing their hands at the sight of Democrats arguing with Democrats. They shouldn’t. They should celebrate. Democracy is once again a messy business in America. That is what democracy is supposed to be. It's how it works best.

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