Who says no one pays attention to history? Increasingly, it seems as if both parties in the capital are paying way too much attention to history.
We’re all familiar with the complaint that Americans don’t know much about their past. But a bigger problem may be that our leaders are the hostages of history.
That’s apparent this spring. Republicans, fighting to create a new vision of the future, are paralyzed by the lessons of 1990. Democrats, who, under Barack Obama have a fresh profile, are recreating 1982. The result is that historical prisms have become historical prisons.
Republicans, remembering how their party split apart in 1990 and their president was repudiated in his re-election battle after a historic compromise that included new taxes, are determined not to enter into any budget agreement that includes even the faintest hint or the broadest definition of taxes.
Democrats, remembering their success in gaining 27 House seats in 1982 after pillorying the Republicans as threats to the elderly, are determined not to move on entitlement spending today, when both Medicare and Social Security are in danger and the deficit is burgeoning.
There may be a way out of this prison of the past.
“From the middle ‘80s a no-tax pledge became a litmus test for Republicans, but maybe we need more revenue without increasing tax rates, maybe by rethinking tax preferences to certain groups,” says former GOP Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, who served during both the 1982 and 1990 turning points. “The Democrats might want to preserve medical care for retirees, but maybe by reforming Medicare or adjusting age requirements.”
But right now, the captives are looking inward, toward the prison walls, rather than outside, toward liberation from the shackles of 1982 and 1990.
The 1982 congressional elections occurred nearly 30 years ago. Only eight senators and 22 House members remain in office from that time. And yet the “lessons” of that time are still vivid.
The 12 surviving Democrats in the House remember how Speaker Thomas O’Neill led them in a vicious and successful attack in which he described the president’s spending plan as a “Beverly Hills budget” and spoke of “thousands who expected to go to college on their parents’ Social Security.”
So for decades no mainstream politician has dared speak of cutting Social Security or its cousin, Medicare — until now.
This year, Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee, proposed a sweeping overhaul of Medicare. It lingered in the capital air for a few fraught weeks, and then the Democrats mobilized against it.
“What we want is to change the view that the Republicans have that it is OK to abolish Medicare [and] to make seniors pay more for less while we give tax breaks to big oil,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Before long, several key Republicans backed away from the Ryan plan. But in the dark of night, everyone knows that Medicare in its current form is not sustainable.
In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush accepted his party’s presidential nomination and made his famous statement: “Read my lips — no new taxes.” It won him the applause of the convention delegates — but became a threat to his re-election when he entered into a budget agreement that included tax increases and, fatefully, inflamed his party’s conservative wing.
Only 23 Republican House members and seven senators from that era remain on Capitol Hill. Yet the “lesson” remains fresh, even among those who did not witness the disintegration of Mr. Bush’s presidency.
Mr. Bush faced a strong New Hampshire primary challenge from Patrick Buchanan, the Reagan base crumbled beneath him, and a rogue third-party candidacy by billionaire Ross Perot siphoned supporters as well as Republican enthusiasm.
As a result, a man who had astonishingly high approval rates was easily defeated by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. No Republican wants to relive that debacle.
Can both parties be released from the prisons of their pasts?
“I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but we’ve lost a sense of compromise,” said former Republican Sen. Mark Andrews of North Dakota. “In the 1960s and 1970s we talked with people on the other side. Today there’s not a lot of substance, but they ring a lot of bells on the Hill and make a lot of noise.”
My cry for the rest of the year comes straight from the 1960s: Free all political prisoners.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org