Tonight’s Republican Debate: The 19th Century or the Stone Age?

Tonight a bevy of Republican presidential hopefuls hope to emerge as finalists. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann will battle for the right-wing nut Tea Party finals. Mitt Romney and John Huntsman will position themselves for the moderate right-wing finals. The putative winners in both these rounds will take on each other in the months ahead.

Nonetheless, listen tonight, if you can bear it, for anything other than standard Republican boilerplate since the 1920s — a wistful desire to return to the era of William McKinley, when the federal government was small, the Fed and the IRS had yet to be invented, state laws determined worker safety and hours, evolution was still considered contentious, immigrants were almost all European, big corporations and robber barons ran the government, the poor were desperate, and the rich were lived like old-world aristocrats.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the Republican Party had a brief flirtation with the twentieth century. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon lent their support to such leftist adventures as Medicare and a clean environment. Eisenhower pushed for the greatest public-works project in the history of the United States — the National Defense Highway Act, which linked the nation with four-lane (and occasionally six-lane) Interstate highways. The GOP also supported a large expansion of federally-supported higher education. And to many Republicans at the time, a marginal income tax rate of more than 70 percent on top incomes was not repugnant.

But the Republican Party that emerged in the 1970s began its march back to the 19th century.  By the time Newt Gingrich and his regressive followers took over the House of Representatives in 1995, social conservatives, isolationists, libertarians, and corporatists had taken over once again.

Some Democrats are quietly rooting for Perry or Bachmann, on the theory that they’re so extreme that they’ll bolster Obama’s chances for a second term and make it easier for congressional Democrats to scare Independents into voting for a Democratic House and maybe even Senate.

I understand the logic but I’d rather not take the chance. A Perry or Bachmann wouldn’t just take us back to the 19th century. They’d take us back to the stone age.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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