Memory can be an inconvenient thing, especially in Republican Washington.
Published on TomPaine.com.
Memory can be an embarrassing thing. In politics, it’s often more convenient to forget. The classic illustration of this idea was Orwell’s dystopian Ministry of Truth, where functionaries fed any inconvenient bit of information down the memory hole —“whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air.”
Not to be outdone by fiction, Republican Washington has constructed its own prodigious Kingdom of Forgetting. From judicial nominations to tax cuts to Mid-East policy, the arguments wielded on Capitol Hill have apparently been crafted for GOP true believers or people with very short memories.
In early May, Republicans professed outrage at the Democrats’ successful filibuster of two Bush appeals court nominees, Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen. They claimed the tactic displayed unprecedented one-sidedness. The judges, said White House spokesperson Ari Fleisher, “were being blocked and obstructed by a liberal, partisan, obstructionist minority.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, chair of the Judiciary Committee, added that the “partisanship has gotten out of control.”
It’s a laughable position, or would be if the real partisans weren’t so good at getting their way against the weak-willed opposition. Under the previous administration, Republicans were masters of obstruction, stalling so many of Clinton’s nominees in 1997 and 1998 that the Administrative Office of the Courts declared a “judicial emergency.” While vacancies hampered district and appeals courts, nominees languished, owing to Hatch’s delay tactics. It took nearly four years to confirm one Clinton nominee, Richard Paez. Sen. Bill Frist, who’s now pushing to change Senate filibuster rules, was one of 14 senators who supported using a filibuster to block Paez even longer.
In contrast to that crisis, vacancy rates today are low, and Senate has approved 124 out of Bush’s 126 judicial nominations.
In a second impressive example of memory loss, Republicans have forgotten that they once stood squarely against budget deficits. You don’t need to be a history professor to recall that a balanced budget was one of the eight commandments enumerated in the Republicans’ “Contract With America” back in 1994. Their “Fiscal Responsibility Act” sought to require “Congress to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses.” The Bush team hewed to this position until 2001, that is, until keeping the principle would logically have ruled out tax cuts. Then the past quickly vanished.
Paul Krugman at The New York Times noted that Glenn Hubbard, before resigning from Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors in February, “denied that deficits raise interest rates and depress private investment. Yet Hubbard is also the author of an economics textbook… the 2002 edition of [which] explains how, yes, deficits raise interest rates and depress private investment.”
While many economists, especially progressives, think deficit spending isn’t necessarily harmful, we can still marvel at the hypocrisy of the current administration and its ability to squander vast sums. By shoving tax cuts through the Senate on a party-line vote, the White House added to a budget deficit already totaling more than $300 billion for the year.
The long-term outlook is even worse. Predictions in 2001 suggested a $5.6 trillion surplus over the next decade. Those estimates are long gone. Now, with deficits adding up for the foreseeable future, we face being over $6 trillion worse off than we expected just two years ago. While around half of that of that amount has been lost to the recession, the Bush administration bears responsibility for the rest. A massive $1.6 trillion went to the first round of tax cuts alone—a number that could grow if ever-slippery sunset clauses are removed and cuts are made permanent.
Still more egregious than these assaults on history is U.S. policy in the Middle East, which seems to require total amnesia. Is Saddam the face of evil? The Bushies didn’t always think so. The advocacy group Peace Action is currently running newspaper and transit ads that feature the 1983 photograph of Secretary Rumsfeld shaking hands with Mr. Hussein, whom the Reagan administration then contended was “vital to U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.”
Despite our past backing of the dictator, there was little reason to believe that he represented any threat to his neighbors in recent years, when his military ambitions had been effectively contained. As one noted analyst commented in 2000 in Foreign Affairs magazine, “If they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempts to use them will bring national obliteration” in a region where Israel is the only nuclear power. The analyst? Condoleezza Rice.
“Unusable in 2000,” asks Tariq Ali, the London-based writer who unearthed the quote, “but three years later Saddam had to be removed by the dispatch of a massive Anglo-American expeditionary force… before he got them?”
The warped logic of this reversal leads one to question the military experience of the leaders who plotted the invasion—a questioning some prominent officials have undertaken in the past. “I am angry,” a well-regarded general named Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography, “that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed… managed to wrangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.”
How sad that Powell, afforded a degree of respect by many liberals that is withheld from the rest of the president’s clique, had to toss that heartfelt sentiment down the memory hole when he accepted a position in Bush’s Cabinet. But like anything else in today’s Washington that conflicts with short-term political gain, real conviction can be simply too damning to remember.
Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.