Opinion and Forefront

RUSTHOVEN: Coats, Lugar steering clear of extremes

July 23, 2011

Peter J. RusthovenThis summer’s debt-limit drama reveals most of what one needs to know about today’s political scene. Let’s start with three truths about the man in the lead role.

1. Our president’s willingness to say anything is remarkable, but draws no remarks from his mainstream media admirers. In April, only a “clean” debt-limit bill (i.e., no spending cuts) could avert looming catastrophe. Now, he will veto anything but a large, “long-term” solution (i.e., one raising taxes) and dares opponents, “Don’t call my bluff.”

Thus, the president is willing to push the economy over the precipice he warned of this spring (when only a “clean” bill would do) unless he gets the tax hikes he’s always wanted. The New York Times and Washington Post are silent on this, but bemoan GOP “intransigence.”

2. Demagoguery is in the Obama DNA. He rails against tax breaks on “corporate jets,” knowing that added revenue from ending this “abuse” (slightly faster depreciation rules) is barely a drop in the ocean of debt he’s added. The “wealthy” (as he defines them) are a daily whipping boy, yet he knows that even confiscating their income would make no meaningful dent in the deficit. Scaring the elderly has now entered stage left, with the president saying Social Security checks might stop due to his opposition’s obstinance.

3. To Obama, opponents are always selfish and small-minded, putting partisan gain above the nation’s interests. He alone stands above the fray, the lonely adult striving to serve the people despite the squabbling, politically motivated children surrounding him, who ignore his lectures and need to “eat their peas.”

His opponents are not just mistaken, they are foolish and bad. He alone is wise and good. Apparently, this is what he meant in promising to transcend politics.

The debt limit also captures truths about Republicans, not all good ones. Some in the GOP—quite unlike President Reagan, whose mantle they claim—prefer striking poses to striking a deal to achieve the possible. Thus, 12 Republican senators (along with others who aspire to that office) have pledged to oppose raising the debt limit absent spending cuts (good), spending caps (fine), and passage of a balanced budget amendment to the constitution (excuse me?).

Support by all 47 GOP senators leaves one 20 votes shy of passing that amendment. It may pass someday, but today’s not the day. That won’t change if the United States defaults on its obligations because the debt limit’s not raised.

Utah’s Orrin Hatch, fearing a primary challenge, is among the 12. Indiana’s Dan Coats and Dick Lugar (who is being challenged) are not, though both support a balanced budget amendment. Lugar’s primary opponent, Richard Mourdock, has signed the pledge. It is a credit to Lugar and Coats, and the opposite of Hatch and Mourdock, that each position was predictable.

The larger truth highlighted by the debt-limit battle is that the core truths about our two major parties remain the same.

Democrats remain the government party. To them, free markets yield unequal (and therefore unfair) outcomes. Government is a mighty engine for good, to be fueled by taxes (mostly from the rich) and directed by those who know best how resources should be used and distributed.

Republicans remain the freedom party. To them, free markets are essential to the prosperity on which all depends (including ability to help the neediest). Government is necessary but inherently dangerous. If not limited, it will cripple the wealth creation that only the free marketplace can do, and ultimately destroy freedom itself.

The founders shared the latter vision. It has never been more important. Obama promised “hope” and “change.” The actual change has been expanding government control and staggering escalation of debt, to the point that there is serious question, for the first time in our history, that we can possibly restore and sustain the levels of economic growth that are the only way out of this mess.

The only real hope is that we change direction in November 2012.•

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Rusthoven, an attorney, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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