Renée Loth

No silver lining in GOP’s clouds

By Renée Loth
March 12, 2011

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WHATEVER HAPPENED to “Morning in America?’’

Today’s Republicans have abandoned the muscular optimism of their hero, Ronald Reagan, who made most Americans feel good about themselves even as he was bashing welfare mothers and air traffic controllers Reagan understood that Americans were wary of the 1970s, a period of limits and doubt that he effectively linked to President Jimmy Carter. Instead, Reagan offered renewed confidence and pride in a country with no end to its potential. “In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal,’’ he said.

Now Republicans have hit the dimmer switch. A glummer group of gloom-and-doomers would be hard to find outside of a mortician’s convention. “We’re broke!’’ moans Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. “There really is no room to negotiate [with public-employee unions] because we’re broke,’’ echoes Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. “We don’t have the money to dish out to the states,’’ House Speaker John Boehner said last month.

The Republican vision of America is a cramped place of limited prospects — not blue-sky, just blue. To hear them tell it, we live in can’t-do nation. We can’t educate our children. We can’t afford a first-class transportation system. We can’t regulate the safety of our air and food and water. We can’t operate highway rest stops or public parks. We can’t even keep our criminals in prison.

And we really, truly, can’t tax rich people a penny more to help pay for these other things.

Of course the Republicans don’t want to be too upbeat about the country, lest some of that good feeling spill over onto President Obama, whom they hope to defeat next year. And they need to paint a solemn picture of the nation’s economy so the public will accept austerity budgets and program cuts even as champagne corks are starting to pop again in corporate boardrooms.

It’s galling to watch the Republicans, who merrily drove up deficits over the past decade, now use their supposed penury to kill government programs they never liked to begin with — from Planned Parenthood to inspections of lead paint in children’s toys. Walker’s budget in Wisconsin, for example, goes beyond attacking public-sector unions to repeal several programs put in place by his predecessors, including scholarship help for teens who pledge to stay in school, a prerelease program to ease inmates out of correctional institutions, even a law requiring communities to recycle.

“We’re determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and turn the ship around,’’ Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said just after the November elections.

OK. But when does “determined’’ start to look defeatist? The United States already has slipped in world rankings of education, health outcomes, infrastructure, and investments in basic research, all critical leading indicators of competitiveness. A report last month by the McKinsey Global Institute concludes that this country’s crumbling infrastructure is one of its greatest impediments to growth. The United States ranks 23d among countries in the study for overall quality of the infrastructure (including roads, water systems, and Internet broadband) — behind South Korea, Barbados, and Taiwan. And that’s not even considering disinvestments in education.

No one is denying that long-term demographics portend trouble, especially if the United States cannot reduce health care costs. But so far the best “health reform’’ solution most states have come up with is charging patients higher premiums and co-pays. How cutting the cost of health care by making it more expensive works is a question for Alice’s mad tea party.

The larger point, though, is that the country is not broke. Not unless these doomsayers believe the economy will never recover, that sales and income tax revenues will never bounce back, or that it is never possible to ask hedge fund managers, for example, to pay the same rate on their income as their secretaries. Republicans are forever comparing government to a family living beyond its means. Such a family always has two options: cut expenses, or increase income.

The Republicans are hoping that a panicked citizenry won’t ask how the richest country on earth got too poor to keep its streetlights on. The truth is that America is not poor — except for its poverty of vision.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.