None dare call it sabotage

NONE DARE CALL IT SABOTAGE…. Consider a thought experiment. Imagine you actively disliked the United States, and wanted to deliberately undermine its economy. What kind of positions would you take to do the most damage?

You might start with rejecting the advice of economists and oppose any kind of stimulus investments. You’d also want to cut spending and take money out of the economy, while blocking funds to states and municipalities, forcing them to lay off more workers. You’d no doubt want to cut off stimulative unemployment benefits, and identify the single most effective jobs program of the last two years (the TANF Emergency Fund) so you could kill it.

You might then take steps to stop the Federal Reserve from trying to lower the unemployment rate. You’d also no doubt want to create massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibly of sending the United States into default.

You might want to cover your tracks a bit, and say you have an economic plan that would help — a tax policy that’s already been tried — but you’d do so knowing that such a plan has already proven not to work.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Matt Yglesias had an item the other day that went largely unnoticed, but which I found pretty important.

…I know that tangible improvements in the economy are key to Obama’s re-election chances. And Douglas Hibbs knows that it’s key. And senior administration officials know that its key. So is it so unreasonable to think that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may also know that it’s key? That rank and file Republicans know that it’s key? McConnell has clarified that his key goal in the Senate is to cause Barack Obama to lose in 2012 which if McConnell understands the situation correctly means doing everything in his power to reduce economic growth. Boehner has distanced himself from this theory, but many members of his caucus may agree with McConnell.

Which is just to say that specifically the White House needs to be prepared not just for rough political tactics from the opposition (what else is new?) but for a true worst case scenario of deliberate economic sabotage.

Budget expert Stan Collender has predicted that Republicans perceive “economic hardship as the path to election glory.” Paul Krugman noted in his column yesterday that Republicans “want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.”

As best as I can tell, none of this analysis — all from prominent observers — generated significant pushback. The notion of GOP officials deliberately damaging the economy didn’t, for example, spark widespread outrage or calls for apologies from Matt or anyone else.

And that, in and of itself, strikes me as remarkable. We’re talking about a major political party, which will control much of Congress next year, possibly undermining the strength of the country — on purpose, in public, without apology or shame — for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012.

Maybe now would be a good time to pause and ask a straightforward question: are Americans O.K. with this?

For months in 2009, conservatives debated amongst themselves about whether it’s acceptable to actively root against President Obama as he dealt with a variety of pressing emergencies. Led by Rush Limbaugh and others, the right generally seemed to agree that there was nothing wrong with rooting against our leaders’ success, even in a time of crisis.

But we’re talking about a significantly different dynamic now. This general approach has shifted from hoping conditions don’t improve to taking steps to ensure conditions don’t improve. We’ve gone from Republicans rooting for failure to Republicans trying to guarantee failure.

Over the summer, this general topic came up briefly, and Jon Chait suggested observers should be cautious about ascribing motives.

Establishing motive is always very hard to prove. What’s more, the notion of deliberate sabotage presumes a conscious awareness that doesn’t square with human psychology as I understand it. People are extraordinarily deft at making their principles — not just their stated principles, but their actual principles — comport with their interests. The old Upton Sinclair quote — “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it” — has a lot of wisdom to it.

I don’t think many Republicans are actually trying to stop legislation that might help the economy recover because they know that a slow economy is their best route to regaining power. I think that when they’re in power, consequences like an economic slowdown or a collapsing industry seem very dire, and policies to prevent this are going to sound compelling. When you’re out of power, arguments against such policies are going to sound more compelling.

That seems largely fair. Under this line of thought, Republicans have simply lied to themselves, convincing one another that worthwhile ideas should be rejected because they’re not actually worthwhile anymore.

But Jon’s benefit-of-the-doubt approach would be more persuasive if (a) the same Republicans weren’t rejecting ideas they used to support; and (b) GOP leaders weren’t boasting publicly about prioritizing Obama’s destruction above all else, including the health of the country.

Indeed, we can even go a little further with this and note that apparent sabotage isn’t limited to economic policy. Why would Republican senators, without reason or explanation, oppose a nuclear arms treaty that advances U.S. national security interests? When the treaty enjoys support from the GOP elder statesmen and the Pentagon, and is only opposed by Iran, North Korea, and Senate Republicans, it leads to questions about the party’s intentions that give one pause.

Historically, lawmakers from both parties have resisted any kind of temptations along these lines for one simple reason: they didn’t think they’d get away with it. If members of Congress set out to undermine the strength of the country, deliberately, just to weaken an elected president, they risked a brutal backlash — the media would excoriate them, and the punishment from voters would be severe.

But I get the sense Republicans no longer have any such fears. The media tends to avoid holding congressional parties accountable, and voters aren’t really paying attention anyway. The Boehner/McConnell GOP appears willing to gamble: if they can hold the country back, voters will just blame the president in the end. And that’s quite possibly a safe assumption.

If that’s the case, though, then it’s time for a very public, albeit uncomfortable, conversation. If a major, powerful political party is making a conscious decision about sabotage, the political world should probably take the time to consider whether this is acceptable, whether it meets the bare minimum standards for patriotism, and whether it’s a healthy development in our system of government.