It was as if a door had slowly creaked open and, from somewhere down below in the Capitol crypt, they brought up a tarnished old brass placard from the Cold War era, hung it beneath the big dome — and began doing business in 2012 as a joint committee on Un-American Activities.
With one exception: Instead of investigating perceived un-American activities, the senators and representatives of 2012 began committing them.
Sadly, there just is no other way to describe what the 112th Congress did to the American people throughout 2012. Faced with an economy that was struggling to recover from the Great Recession — the worst recession since the Great Depression — the senators and representatives willfully sent all the wrong signals and did all the wrong things.
First, they decided the only way they could be trusted to do the right thing to curb America’s growing debt was to create, for the first time ever, a “fiscal cliff” — with mandatory budget cuts so massive no Congress would dare let it happen.
Then they spent most of 2012 sending signals to global markets, government agencies, and companies large and small that this Congress just might let it happen. Ideologues insisted they’d rather push America off the cliff rather than compromise one ideological iota.
The result: The uncertainty they created set off a predictable chain-reaction. Washington got so caught up in its campaign name-calling that it set off a chain reaction of budgetary fear, and caution slowed America’s recovery and hurt most those most needing help.
Belatedly, we can connect the econo-dots: Federal departments and agencies, concerned about prospective cuts, froze new hiring. That led federal contractors (huge, middle-sized and small) to freeze hiring. Meanwhile, state and local governments froze hiring. So did their contractors, large and small. All of which explains why the markets alternately trembled and panicked.
Looking back, there was nothing President Barack Obama and the Republicans agreed to in the final weeks, days, hours and minutes of 2012 that couldn’t have been proposed, debated, amended and enacted half a year ago. Even though everyone knows that in election years the in-party pops corks at every economic uptick and the out-party privately rejoices at every downtick.
But 2012 was destined to be a special case — as we learned after an unusually public declaration of the sort of hardball politics that is usually kept behind closed doors. Two days after Republicans gained in the 2010 elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared: “Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”
Well, that old dog didn’t hunt. Even though Republicans did little to help America achieve economic successes Obama could claim credit for in his campaign. Bizarrely, Republicans defined themselves as the party determined to protect low tax rates for millionaires, while Obama championed efforts to extend middle class tax rates that were due to expire at the end of 2012.
But media watchdogs did Republicans an unintended favor by not investigating and calculating the number of jobs that were frozen in 2012 due to the uncertainty posed by the pending fiscal cliff.
The total numbers of jobs that were once-budgeted but remained unfilled in 2012 would have been the final, paint-by-the-numbers big picture of what today’s floundering Republican Party has done to — rather than for — the American middle class.
This is, after all, the same middle class Ronald Reagan appealed to so extraordinarily, not so long ago. Viewed through Reaganesque lenses, the party Reagan once revitalized now seems sadly and even unpatriotically out of touch with the aspirations of its middle class true-believers.
Today’s GOP, once grand, is now mainly just old. And much in need of re-casting and reform.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.