Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

“New Politics” Still Just a Promise

James Skillen


March 13, 2009

The picture is not yet very bright for a new politics. We are caught up in a global economic crisis of immense proportions and there can be no return to life as usual because the old “usual” is what brought us to this point. We clearly need new leadership through this dark and uncertain passage. What we are witnessing in Washington, however, makes one wonder if the politicians have their heads buried so deep in the sand that they don’t even know what time it is.

Congressional Republicans keep chanting their chorus of “No, No, No” in an attempt, they say, to defend the country from Democratic excesses. Yet they offer no constructive alternatives and show signs that they’ve lost their short-term memories as well. They hope the public will join them in forgetting that the financial crisis bubbled and exploded while they and President Bush were in charge, during those good old days when the national debt doubled and millions of jobs were lost.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress are scurrying as quickly as possible to grab the spoils they believe belong to them. What spoils? Control of the public’s debit card with which to show supportive interest groups that the Democrats are back in charge. America in a crisis? What crisis?

How is President Obama, the voice for a new politics, dealing with all of this? His actions and declarations are pouring forth fast and furiously, but it appears that he has not yet taken the measure of the old politics, which remains as vibrant as ever. In deciding on Wednesday, for example, to sign Congress’s omnibus spending bill, which he said did not satisfy him, the president perhaps believed he could win Congress’s favor now so its members will buy into his new politics later on. But that’s like allowing children to eat the ice cream cone they want before dinner in the belief that an hour later they will put away childish things and tuck into their spinach and fish and never ask for ice cream before dinner again.

Consider, for example, the president’s declared intention in his next budget to cut wasteful Pentagon spending. Yet in the bill he just signed, 44 senators, most of whom are Democrats, insisted on including hundreds of millions of dollars (nearly a billion) for new ships and other weapons systems that the Pentagon doesn’t even want (Washington Post, 3/8/09).

Then there is the education reform that the president is urgently calling for, to prepare the next generation for new economic challenges and to reach students in failing schools with the means to their future employment. Yet the spending bill cuts off funding for a valuable experiment in education reform that even the editors of the liberal Washington Post (2/25/09) insist should be maintained. It is a widely successful voucher experiment in Washington, D.C. that enables 1700 poor students to attend nongovernment schools. There are four applicants for each of the available scholarships. Who benefits from cutting off the scholarship funds? The teachers unions, among others, who also oppose the president’s call for merit pay for better teachers. Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs gave assurances that Obama would not let the D.C. voucher program expire, but the president signed the bill anyway.

Explaining his signature, the president said the bill represents leftover business from the last Congress, and next time around he will be firm about the budget cuts and the programs he wants. But that is only today’s promise. Signing the bill exemplifies the kind of leadership he is choosing to exercise today, and actions speak louder than promises. Moreover, the next time, we can be sure that congressional leaders will be inviting him to join them for a pre-dinner ice cream. The old politics is alive and well.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”