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 frequent complaints 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, with the nation facing huge deficits and Congress wrestling over the debt limit. The Republicans, fighting to create a new vision of the future, are paralyzed by the lessons of 1990. The Democrats, who under Barack Obama have a fresh profile, are recreating 1982. The result is that historical prisms have become historical prisons.
Nations and parties often become captives of their pasts. In 1938, the Western democracies, so desperate to avoid war that they made war more likely, succumbed to Hitler’s pressure and virtually handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. A year and a half later, all of Europe was in flames — and for decades Western leaders misapplied, or over-applied, the “lesson of appeasement.” The number of times the “lessons of Vietnam” have been misapplied is too great to count.
Now that’s happening again, as the nation faces an epic economic challenge and as the most significant congressional struggle on economic philosophy in three decades unfolds on Capitol Hill.
The 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.
The 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 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 House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. led them into a vicious and highly successful attack on Reagan and his Republican allies in the House, beginning when O’Neill 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.
Now to the prison of 1990. Standing before the Republican National Convention 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. An insurgent congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, still is remembered for hanging up on a telephone call from White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.
Only 23 Republican House members and seven senators from that era remain on Capitol Hill, and yet the “lesson” that emerged from 1990 — that Republicans will come to grief if they consent to any revenue increases — remains fresh.
Bush himself faced a strong New Hampshire primary challenge from Patrick J. Buchanan, the Reagan base crumbled beneath him and a rogue third-party candidacy by billionaire H. 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?
Former Republican Sen. Mark Andrews recalled the other morning how he embraced open-housing measures, of no interest to his constituents in North Dakota, as part of an arrangement that helped him win support for an agriculture bill from Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose constituents in Massachusetts had little stake in farm issues. That sense of bipartisanship and cooperation seems alien today on Capitol Hill.
“I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but we’ve lost a sense of compromise,” said Andrews, reached last week at the Mapleton, N.D., corn and soybean farm his forebears settled in 1882 in the old Dakota Territory. “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.