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2009 JF

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Jonathan Tobin, Executive Editor of Commentary
News and Opinion

Delusional or just cynical

-- Ira N. Forman

One of the more fascinating spectator sports in recent weeks has been watching the behavior of the Republican apparatchik class as it sounds off on President Barack Obama’s economic recovery package. A good example of this “frothing at the mouth” reaction is a January 5, 2009 blog penned by Jonathan Tobin, Executive Editor of Commentary.

Tobin, the former editor of a Jewish weekly newspaper, approaches the issue from a Jewish communal perspective. Like many Jewish movement conservatives, he is baffled and frustrated at the fact that most Jewish communal organizations are not slavishly committed to his own extreme conservative view of the world.

Tobin dismisses most of the Jewish communal organizations’ support for the Obama stimulus plan as merely reflective of their commitment to “a statist, liberal welfare-state agenda— even if it has very little to do with what is or is not good for the Jews.” The support for the stimulus package by other Jewish organizations (most notably United Jewish Communities [UJC]) which can’t be so easily dismissed, is, in Tobin’s telling, merely a function of their self-serving devotion and addiction to government grants. Tobin ends his piece by dismissing the notion that the recovery package is about getting the country out of recession as “laughable.”

There is so much cynicism and/or delusion in his post that it is hard to know where to begin a critique. One of the most damning lines in this piece is Tobin’s dismissal of the fight over the stimulus package as merely “a partisan dust-up.” This brings to mind Rush Limbaugh’s recent comment that he wants President Obama to fail. Conservatives have a right to disagree with a Democratic administration, but are they seriously blind to the gravity of the current economic crisis? Are all policy disagreements with Obama, no matter what their consequences to the country, to be defined as mere partisan politics? Is this debate about how to reverse the worst economic downturn since the 1930s so trivial as to be dismissed as simply partisan bickering?

Then there are Tobin’s ideological blinders. He can’t bring himself to seriously analyze the possible reasons for Jewish communal support for social welfare spending. Is there no possible rationale for support of such programs in the extensive social justice themes of the Jewish tradition? Apparently not: it seems as if Tobin’s response (similar to the historical response of many elites when their ideology is rejected by a sizeable democratic majority) is to dismiss the opinions of most of the American Jewish population with the notion that “the masses are asses.”

The most stunning comments in this blog post is Tobin’s argument that the Obama package is just a “massive federal spending bill” aimed at satiating the demands of liberal interest groups and “will do nothing to ‘jump start’ the economy.” Thus the opinion of the vast majority of serious economists in this country is quickly dismissed with a sarcastic quip that the “[t]he notion that this money will get the country out of the recession is laughable and its authors know it.”

As Obama so directly countered his “know-nothing” critics last week, the whole point of a stimulus is federal spending. Tobin and his conservative comrades can blithely dismiss the opinions of our most respected economic analysts on the need for massive federal spending at this juncture of a severe economic downturn (especially given the fact that the federal government has no monetary tools at its disposal). However, they are hard pressed to counter our historical experience from the 1930s and early 1940s of the efficacy of massive federal spending in times of economic crisis.

Most cynically, Tobin, like most congressional Republicans, finds miniscule pieces of the package they characterize as pork barrel spending and present us with no credible alternatives to the Obama plan. Should we assume that they’d like to go back to the GOP policies of the first third of the twentieth century— balanced budgets and let the markets take care of the rest? Or should we assume that they want more of the policies of the recently discredited Bush administration— massive tax cuts for the wealthiest— even when conservative economists largely agree that tax cuts in general (and especially tax cuts for the rich) will be saved and not spent?

The good news about this Republican/conservative response is that in blindly attacking the Obama economic recovery, they have turned themselves into the true heirs of Herbert Hoover/laissez faire Republicananism— a sure recipe for GOP political failure in the coming decade. The bad news is that with the filibuster tool, a minority of 40 GOP Senators can place political cynicism or ideological rigidity over the necessity to move quickly and decisively before this economic downturn turns into another Great Depression.

Ira N. Forman is the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

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