In your lifetime, you’re likely to see a handful of seismic shifts in what constitutes the center of American politics. At last week’s debate, we may have seen the third such shift in so many decades.
America saw it once in the wake of the Civil Rights era in the 60’s and 70’s, as Martin Luther King went from being a civil protestor to a universal icon for the cause of human rights and dignity. After MLK’s death and American-style canonization (i.e. he became a national holiday), the causes he championed redefined what it means to be an American. And in doing so, those causes – racial equality chief among them – permanently entered the political platforms of both the Democrats and Republicans. They redefined the center.
A second such shift took place in the 1980’s, with the great economic liberalization heralded by Reagan, Thatcher, and the end of communism. In less than a decade, privatization and deregulation stopped being rightwing causes, and quickly emerged as the de facto model — not only for America’s domestic economic policy, but its foreign policy as well (the so-called Washington Consensus). Nothing epitomizes this transformation as much as the decade that followed, when two leftist politicians – Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – not only preserved, but advanced many of the values of the great economic liberalization. Clinton’s ending of Glass-Steagal is the most prominent example of this.
And that leads us to today. Or, more particularly, last week, when Romney – widely viewed as the winner of the debate – cemented a glacial but dramatic transformation of nothing less than the platform of America’s right wing. Here are just some of his changes:
(1) Regulation: Romney announces that regulation is a good thing, and that as a corporate CEO, he needs regulation to run his business. I couldn’t believe my ears.
(2) Taxes: Romney appears to have completely backed down from the long-standing supply side economics espoused by the Republican Party since the Reagan era. Instead of pushing for tax cuts for the top income bracket, Romney has advocated a Simpson-Bowles model in which taxes are lowered while deductions are eliminated. Deductions overwhelmingly favor wealthy tax payers with well-heeled accountants. By pushing a policy that eliminates such deductions, Romney may be signaling a dramatic shift in the core beneficiaries of Republican tax policies.
(3) Healthcare: This one was more subtle, and less a change in policy than a change in tone. Nonetheless, given the vociferous right-wing opposition to Obamacare, it matters. Namely, by highlighting his healthcare achievements in Massachusetts, and stressing the benefits of banning patient exclusion due to pre-existing conditions, Romney is taking a major step away from the “market solves all” attitude that guided Republican views as recently as 2010.
(4) Social Security: Romney and Obama agreed that there is no daylight in their vision for the program. Sounds ho-hum – until you realize that one of the major issues in Bush’s second term was the privatization of Social Security. Today, Romney has basically dropped the issue.
Make no mistake: these are major shifts from the de facto leader of the Republican Party. Whoever wins the election in November – and Obama certainly did himself no favor with his performance last week – this convergence of policy platforms reflects a slow-moving but dramatic victory for the Democrat’s long-standing platform.
After all, what could be better than having your political opponent advocate your own policy?