Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Blame
Blame is a tricky thing in politics.
For one thing, you have to be particularly careful about the entire notion of blame — for blame, after all, implies agency and power, which can easily backfire. People who say that the current administration is responsible for all the woes of the world have to be careful, lest they attain high office and expect them to actually do something to correct them. When things are good, your administration must be seen to be responsible for it all; when things are bad, your administration must be seen as largely helpless, having done nothing but inherit the consequences of the previous administration’s bad decisions. This is a dance well known to both parties, and not really worth making too big a fuss over.
Sometimes, though, blame must be assigned, and it is perfectly natural and reasonable to want to assign it to the people with whom it can be truthfully said to fall. Actions have consequences, after all, and if the actions of a past regime can be directly traced to a particularly heinous consequence, it might seem wise to point one’s fingers in the right direction. The trouble with this is that as time goes on, the public, fairly or not, becomes dissatisfied with the assignation of blame. No matter how obvious it is that eight years of George W. Bush left the country ripped up, wiped out, battered, shattered, creamed and reamed, eventually voters will come to believe that while it might not be your fault, it’s your problem, and you’d better start doing something about it.
This is a common problem to the non-incumbent, and the G.O.P., masterful obstructionists that they are, have a genius for making it worse; when you oppose every possible measure to improve an already-bad situation, you get to do what the Mitt Romney campaign is doing: point to a bunch of serious problems that were not created by the current administration, whose every attempt to solve them was rejected by a majority opposition, and then ask with a straight face why nothing has been done. It’s a tactic so effective as to be almost unanswerable; every conceivable response can be met with the equivalent of “yeah, but…yeah, but…yeah, but…” mockery. It is only because Romney is so existentially unlikable, and his campaign so profoundly dysfunctional, that this tactic isn’t working as well as it should be.
But even this isn’t particularly unique to one party. The Democrats, no longer in possession of the lock on Congress they enjoyed prior to the 1980s, can’t employ it as often as they’d like, but they’ve learned obstructionism the hard way, and if the situation were reversed, they’d surely be using it with a strong left arm. There is, however, one particular aspect of the politics of blame where the G.O.P. enjoys a dominance, a mastery, a bald-faced monopoly that they maintain through their insurmountable contempt for the institutional memory of voters and their ingrained lack of shame. Where the Republicans, as the Eddie Haskell of political parties, excel is in complaining incessantly about things that were their ideas in the first place, and counting on the fact that no one will remember.
Ronald Reagan, as we have discussed in this space before, nicely filled his role as the pioneer of the modern movement conservative in this regard. He famously ran up gargantuan amounts of government debt, frivolously urinating billions on worthless pork-barrel projects, hyper-inflated military spending, futile anti-communist proxy wars, and boondoggles like the Star Wars missile defense program; this had the salutary effect of starving social welfare programs, thus paralyzing then-current Democratic programs, and creating cavernous deficits, thus paralyzing future Democratic programs. But best of all, through sheer chutzpah, it allowed the next generation of Republicans to blame their opposition for the colossal levels of debt, even though it was the Republicans who started the whole thing. The current threat of top-down austerity measures can all be traced back to this utterly ballsy hypocrisy, which comes straight from the Von Mises/Hayek playbook.
The same tactic was employed by George W. Bush, who obliterated the gains made by the Clinton administration in turning a budget deficit into a surplus during the ’90s tech boom; Bush instantly wiped out all the savings made during that period with a series of deep tax cuts and then, having destroyed a decade of financial gain, turned a mountain into a crater by starting a bogus war with Iraq that shoveled millions of dollars a day into an endless bonfire of waste, corruption and overspending. Bush spent at least six of his eight years in office creating the most massive deficits in American history, priming the economy to sink like a stone at the first sign of trouble; and when trouble finally came, it was a Democrat who ended up having to deal with it, and so we find ourselves now, with the G.O.P. eagerly demanding answers as to why Barack Obama hasn’t yet fixed their enormous fuck-up.
The spectacular meltdown of the economy in 2008, of course, can largely be traced to our recent history of industrial deregulation, and thus provides us with another sterling example of the Republicans creating a huge problem and then blaming everyone else for its inevitable fallout. Deregulation and tax cuts are the arkan al-Republikan, the most sacred tenets of the conservative religion; and in a more rational world, they would also, having failed spectacularly almost every time they’ve been implemented, be the reasons that no member of the G.O.P. could get elected assistant county dogcatcher. But their genius for blaming other people for their own institutional failings has served them extremely well in this regard.
The so-called ‘energy crisis’ in California during the late 1990s and early 2000s was completely artificial; it was brewed up and deliberately exacerbated by companies like Enron, using the new liberties granted them by deregulation-crazy Republican legislators. When it turned into a full-fledged catastrophe, it should have broken the back of California’s G.O.P. Instead, with a skill that was almost breathtaking in its audacity, they somehow managed to place the blame for their own obvious screw-ups on hapless Democratic governor Gray Davis, who was driven from office and replaced by the star of Jingle All the Way.
Having gotten away with such a blatant shedding of responsibility, the Republican Party picked up the blame ball and ran with it. The most proximate cause of the financial collapse of 2008 was deregulation — of the banking, finance and real estate industries, in particular. Once again, the G.O.P. had pushed to ‘free’ huge corporations from government oversight and reasonable expectations of transparency; once again, the corporations used their newfound license to lie, cheat, steal, defraud, and conceal. When the whole thing came crashing down, though, they once again sloughed off their own guilt like a wet dog, and have argued ever since that the slow recovery of the economy can be blamed on…too much regulation. Similarly, when years of bad decision-making and poor investments bit American automobile companies in the ass, rather than allow a vital industry to die out, the Obama administration stepped in with a bailout; the Republicans, rather than admit to their own complicity in the auto industry’s dysfunction, instead somehow managed to blame the president for being a crazed socialist out to seize control of private companies.
If comedy can come out of tragedy, surely the greatest bang/blame combo in recent political history has to be the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and, specifically, the Transportation Security Administration. After the terror attacks of 2001, the Republicans instantly leapt on the opportunity to fear-hump the American public into voting their way, nakedly capitalizing on the unsettled psyche of the nation to push through all sorts of repulsive legislation. One such was the creation of the DHS; while it might seem odd for the party of small government to support the creation of such a massive bureaucratic machine, their motivation was obvious. First, it put unprecedented law enforcement power in the hands of the federal government; and second — and perhaps more importantly — it allowed them to de-unionize huge numbers of federal employees.
The result was, of course, entirely predictable. Anyone who has gone anywhere in the last decade has a storehouse of dark comedy about their encounters with the TSA; the combination of endlessly tinkered-with ‘safety’ regulations and a low-paid, non-unionized workforce with little government oversight has resulted in a situation where at least one TSA agent a week has been arrested for theft, while exactly zero terrorists have been caught thanks to their ‘efforts’ on behalf of the public that funds them. No one thinks the TSA is a particularly effective organization; almost everyone thinks they’re an unnecessary one, or at least one badly in need of oversight and reform. But to hear members of the Republican Party leading the cry for TSA heads on pikes is beyond ironic, as they were the ones who demanded the creation of the outfit in the first place, and were responsible for the institutional flaws that led it to become such a disaster. Rand Paul recently mocked the TSA hand-scanner pose, asking “Is this what a free man looks like?”; I’m not sure, but it’s definitely what a hypocritical jackass looks like. (Paul voted no to FAA appropriations that would have allowed for more oversight of airline security, and yes to preventing TSA workers from unionizing.)
This being election season, we’re liable to see a lot more of this sort of thing. (In particular, we’re going to hear a lot of Republicans bitching about Democratic voter fraud, when the only real attempts to interfere with the electoral process seem to be coming from their side of the aisle.) It would serve us well to remember that killing your parents doesn’t make you the Orphan Party.