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Loyal Opposition

As America prepares for war, an unusual peace has settled upon Washington. After President Bush addressed Congress last week, his erstwhile nemesis, Tom Daschle, embraced him on the House floor. Two days later, Richard Gephardt--last seen savaging Bush over his plan to privatize Social Security--happily obliged a White House request to echo administration sentiments in his own radio address. And Democrats have backed up these bipartisan gestures with legislative action. Not long ago, top Democrats were vowing to hold up appropriations until President Bush proved he could balance the budget; but within days of the attacks on New York and Washington, Democrats had joined Republicans in approving $40 billion of additional spending on the military and on the cleanup in New York. And when it came time to authorize military action, every Democrat supported the president save one. 

This is as it should be. Before America goes to war, an adversarial public debate over the use of force is a sign of our democracy's health. After America goes to war, the lack of an adversarial public debate over the use of force is a sign of our democracy's health. There should be discussion, of course, and if necessary, criticism. Support does not require a collapse of critical thought and neither does patriotism. But the task of criticism should be approached gingerly, in a way that stresses common national goals and does not undermine the president's ability to act as commander-in-chief. And the truth of our situation--the critical truth that the left cannot seem to understand--is that this country is not preparing to start a war; the war started when our enemies attacked New York and Washington. America cannot prevent the war that Osama bin Laden has begun. All it can do is decide not to fight.

And yet there is also something disquieting about the new bipartisan harmony. Politics has stopped not only at the water's edge, but well before it. And that is dangerous, because America isn't only fighting a war; it is facing an economic crisis. Last month's attacks have plunged an already fragile economy into what will almost certainly be a full-fledged recession. And unlike in foreign policy--where the president deserves considerable deference, and where the parties generally agree--on economic policy, the president deserves less deference, and the parties do not generally agree. Which is why the Democrats in Congress don't merely have a right to vigorously resist the economic policies the White House has proposed over the past two weeks; they have an obligation.

Consider the ballyhooed $15 billion airline bailout that Congress passed last week after little serious debate. As Noam Scheiber describes in these pages (See "Flying Blind," page 19), the bailout represents an economically incoherent sop to airline industry moguls and shareholders. It props up poorly run companies that would likely have failed even if the terrorist attacks had not occurred. And it siphons off money that could be spent far more productively, and equitably, on other anti-recessionary measures. And yet the Democratic leadership watched virtually mute as it sailed through Congress.

The same need for loyal opposition goes for tax policy. As Jonathan Chait explains in these pages (see "The Home Front," page 24), some conservatives see the war as an unexpected, new rationale for cutting the capital gains tax. And so the Democrats need to forcefully, and quickly, reject any permanent new tax cuts--especially those targeted to the ultrarich. In fact, they should call for the repeal of the most regressive portions of the Bush tax cut passed in May (portions that don't take effect for many years) and propose using the money to finance emergency spending--either to combat terrorism or to combat the coming recession. They might endorse an idea floated last week by Representative Barney Frank: He would repeal the reduction in the top income tax rate, then plow that money back into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds--shoring up each program's long-term financing while creating room for extra spending now. Or, if Democrats are afraid of being labeled tax hikers, they might take the money from such a repeal and give it back as a rebate on payroll taxes, which would help those who need it most while giving a small jolt to the economy.

President Bush has said the country must get on with its business, and he is right. Part of that business is war. And part of it is politics. Sometimes patriotism demands unity; sometimes it demands sharp, if earnest, disagreement. Democrats need to realize that, at this moment in history, it demands both.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.