Last week the American people voted for change for the third election cycle in a row, putting Republicans back in charge of the House of Representatives and delivering a blow to the reform agenda of President Obama.
The last time the people went for change, in 2008, they voted Obama into the White House with a mandate for reform on issues foreign and domestic. The time before that, at the nadir of the war in Iraq, they gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in a dozen years.
Are the voters fickle? Yes. But they are also sending a message that they do not want extreme moves in either political direction. What they want, and what we hope Obama and the next Congress will be able to deliver, is compromise that moves the country out of the rut it’s in.
As Democratic state Assemblyman Bill Scarborough told the Queens Chronicle this week, “We can only hope that both parties will heed the underlying message of the election, put partisan politics aside and get things done.”
That has to be the overriding goal. The country will not be well served if Democrats fail to see that the people are largely unhappy with how things have gone the last two years under one-party rule, or if Republicans misinterpret last week’s vote as a mandate for a sharp turn to the right. Cohesive, bipartisan policies must be developed on infrastructure repair, improvements to education and the emergence of a new, ecologically sustainable manufacturing sector, to name just three areas. Otherwise major competitors like China, Brazil and India will keep laughing all the way to the bank as the United States falls further behind.
These are not, however, the issues that most incoming Republicans touted during or after their campaigns. Instead, there’s Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell saying repeatedly that the party’s top goal is ensuring Obama will not be re-elected in 2012 — a disgraceful declaration when the nation faces such challenges.
And when Republicans do talk policy instead of politics, they’re promoting two measures above all: sustaining the Bush tax cuts for everyone, even the wealthiest, and repealing the healthcare reforms that are the signature accomplishment of Obama and the outgoing Congress.
Neither idea should pass as is. But there is room for compromise on both.
On healthcare, there’s no reason not to give strong consideration to the only substantive ideas the GOP offered during the entire debate: allowing insurance portability from one state to another to foster competition, and tort reform on malpractice lawsuits, easing the burden on doctors faced with their own outrageous insurance premiums. But provisions like the one allowing people with pre-existing conditions to get insurance must be retained.
On taxes, there’s no reason to keep giving people with multimillion-dollar incomes from capital gains a break when the country needs revenue so badly. The rate there should rise from 15 to 20 percent out of fairness. But the Bush income tax rates should be retained for anyone making up to $500,000 a year because those people are, as the GOP says, small business owners and job creators. Above that level, raising the rate three points will bring in more revenue without depressing the economy further.
Cooperation is key to getting any of this done. It’s happened with divided governments before, notably under presidents Clinton and Reagan. The process wasn’t smooth under either but compromise was eventually reached and the country benefited as a result. U.S. history, as it so often does, at least gives us some reason to hope.