We are now at, or are very close to, the critical moments in the various showdowns between governors and legislatures, and President Obama and the Republican house of representatives over taxes and spending.
Republicans so far are holding firm, but some of them are understandably nervous about the depth of public support for their conservative agenda. The majority of voters did speak, however, in the national elections of 2010 when Republican conservatives ran on the promise of imposing no new taxes, and dramatically cutting and transforming what and how the federal government spends. Similarly, in many states, conservative Republican candidates for governor and for state legislative seats ran (and won) on promises they would enact reform legislation. Republicans do remember 1994-95 when the GOP-controlled U.S. house brought the government to shut down when Democratic President Clinton refused to go along with their program. In that confrontation, voters seemed to blame the Republicans more than Mr. Clinton, and their momentum from the upset takeover of the House in 1994 was seemingly halted. Of course, President Clinton then co-opted much of the GOP program (and the economy subsequently boomed).
But the economic downturn in the 1990s was much shorter and milder (and more traditional) than the one which has overtaken the U.S. since 2007-08. Today, the nation is suffering chronic and prolonged high levels of unemployment, and the inability of an economic recovery to take hold. The bust of the housing bubble has been renewed in spite of extraordinary low interest rates, and entrepreneurs remain reluctant, facing more taxes and regulations, to create new businesses. Overall, there is a persistent lack of economic confidence and optimism. Commodity prices are soaring, bailouts seem to have exhausted their presumed effectiveness and capacity. At the same time, major U.S. entitlement and welfare programs face disastrous deficits, public and private pension funds have run out of money, and the “No Child Left Behind” and other federal educational system programs/mandates are clearly failing.
I contend that the public and the voters are in a completely different place than they were in 1994-95, or even in 2000-02. Democrats routinely turned back Republican attempts to reform Social Security and other federal entitlements through predictable scare tactics aimed at the poor and the elderly. Today, there is widespread acceptance across party and generational lines that something must be done to fix social security, entitlements and educational programs. In 2010, Republicans told voters they would do something about these problems, and contrary to skeptics who thought they might not try to deliver on those promises after the election, GOP leaders and legislators have begun to deliver on those promises. On the other hand, it is a very difficult task. First of all, Republicans do not control the White House and the U.S. senate. Second, in many states they do not control the governorship, or one or both houses of the state legislatures. Even where they do, as in Wisconsin, the established recipients of public largesse such as the public employees and their unions are desperately fighting back, throwing up everything they can (including the kitchen sink) to thwart reform.
Most states have constitutional requirements to balance their budgets, and the imbalance between state revenues and expenditures is now so acute across the nation, that many states are facing shutdowns. Similarly, the federal deficit has become so enormous that Republicans are saying they will no longer vote to increase the national debt ceiling, thus forcing a government shutdown similar to the one which occurred in 1995.
These confrontations have been brewing for several months as conservatives have gone forward with their plans for federal and state economic and educational reform. And now in the next 30-90 days, opposing forces and parties must either arrive at agreements or various levels of government will begin to shut down.
The price of conservative leaders and legislators (and presidential candidates) turning back from their promised reforms and transformations of government now will be massive (and deserved) defeat in 2012 and beyond. Yes, true change is by definition new territory, and no one knows with certainty how voters will react to each and every proposal, but the voters have spoken, and the need is as clear as it has ever been in decades.There is no need to look over incessant political shoulders to make the changes and reforms happen. They should continue to enact them, and finish the job by winning the 2012 elections. They should take the care to explain effectively what they are doing (this is VERY important), but they should do it. Right now is the time.