On Sunday, Will GOP be on Wrong Side of History Again?

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans warn Democrats about the political downside if Obama-Pelosi win Sunday's vote on Health Care. Actually, it's the GOP that's in a lose-lose -- either the Democrats earn due credit for change or the public will blame the GOP for opposing major social breakthroughs as it so often has.

It's happening again, and for much the same reasons. At the brink of a major social advance, the GOP is standing at the doorway of history shouting STOP! Let the free market status quo continue to screw things up, is in effect the message. Whatever the short-term headlines and polls -- and probably a third of America will buy whatever anti-government rhetoric if offered -- there's a long-term cost to a party that's been so consistently on the wrong side of reform and reality.

Apparently there's a reason the GOP constantly has to refer back 150 years as "the party of Lincoln" given its track record since.

While at the time there appeared to be robust debates on the following divisive issues, eventually history has rendered verdicts in favor of these social reforms as measured by real-world success and voter appreciation:

- Civil Rights. From anti-lynching and civil rights bills in the 50s and 60s, it was "the party of Lincoln" that used the rhetorical cover of "states rights" to hold minorities down. Of course a rare species then known as Southern Democratic senators joined in, but as any student of the 1957, 1964 and 1965 civil rights laws knows, a large majority of Democrats voted yes and a large majority of Republicans voted no.

The consequent rise of minority voting and representation -- and laws against discrimination in the workplace, coupled with affirmative action -- have changed the face of the point that even President George W. Bush had to support extending the 1965 voting rights Act in 2005.

- Consumer Regulation. The contest between free markets and regulated markets continues in today's battle over financial regulation, but what percentage of Americans truly accept the logic of rhetoric against "big government over-regulation and would go back to a time without testing toys for lead, cars for safety, stock prospectuses for truthfulness and banks for soundness?

It was the famous Republican team of "Marton to Barton to Fish" that tried to thwart FDR's New Deal policing of market abuses - and the Reagan-Bush theology of weakening bank regulation (with Clinton's unfortunate acquiescence in 1999) that allowed the economic meltdown of September 2008.

Even Alan Greenspan and Richard Posner have admitted shock that their free market models failed, though one wouldn't know it from GOP unanimity against Banking Chairman Chris Dodd's modest financial reform proposals.

- Environmental Justice. Similarly, few Americans other than Tea-Party nihilists and polluters really want to go back to the pre-EPA era when Love Canal was abandoned and the Cayahoga River caught fire. And while a shrewd President Nixon knew to stay in step with public opinion by signing the Clean Air Act in 1970 at the launch of Earth Day, all environmental laws since then - Clean Water, Superfund -- have been enacted over GOP opposition. And of course today's climate change-deniers are largely from one party in America, the one that elevates abstractions against "big government" over evidence called "science."

- Choice. The Roe v. Wade decision was and is controversial, largely because both sides have their respective moral arguments. But women are watching and, on this issue, overwhelming favor the party that believes that it's their choice. And depending on how the question is framed, by 2-1 the public believes that the right to an abortion should not be outlawed or criminalized.

- Campaign Finance Reform. Stalled for generation by one party - an Incumbent Party with two names, Republicans and Democrats - real campaign finance reform got enacted in 1974 only after the Watergate scandal. Then there were both limits on contributions and more transparency. 30 years later a bill that was bi-partisan in name - McCain-Feingold - was enacted to further restrict special interest money flooding the system just before elections. But that vote and all others have, again, been dominated by a majority of Democrats pushing for more democracy and Republicans favoring more corporate money under the illogic that money is speech and corporations are people. This is as persuasive as the argument that "states rights" should keep Blacks from voting, but it has been constitutionalized by five Justices in the recent Citizens United case--all appointed by Republican presidents. Polls show a 3-1 opposition to a decision so stupid and unrealistic that only ideological lawyers could have written it. And it's Democrats like Senator Schumer and Rep. Van Hallen who have introduced legislation to mitigate its impact.

- Gay Rights. Although all state referenda have voted down same-sex marriage, usually narrowly, can anyone seriously doubt the trend line? Since the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have just said that don't-ask/don't tell hurts the military - and since a majority of Americans over 60 oppose gay marriage while a majority under 30 support it - the issue for gays is not whether but when. And when they win these rights and nothing happens to heterosexual couples, it's not hard to predict which party will gain politically and which won't.

- Deficits and Taxes. Even on a signature Republican issue like deficits and taxes, the data is damning. By far most of Obama's first two years of deficits (actual and projected) trace to the enormous gap between Reagan-Bush's tax cuts without spending cuts. Today, the real rate of taxation of the super-rich has plunged and our national rate of taxation is lower than that of nearly all other Western nations. And when President Clinton raised taxes on wealthier Americans - with zero Republican votes (sound familiar?) -- the economy boomed.

Should the GDP and jobs grow far more under Clinton and Obama than under Bush, as seems likely, how much longer can a Senator McConnell credibly assert that "Democrats spend too much and tax too much?"

- Health Care. History this year and week is exactly repeating itself as the arguments against Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - big government takeover!, socialism! - are trotted out. But while this may excite the loud voices of a minority of a minority called the Tea Party, history will note that the vast majority of Americans appreciate the security that these programs provide.

All in all, this is quite a losing streak, akin to Canute shouting at the tides. As judged by voter polls and real-world reality - air is cleaner, minorities are now in office, cars are safer, women don't want forced pregnancies - the Republican party and philosophy truly has been the Party of No. And voters like women, Blacks, Latinos, parents, consumers, and gays have received the message. That's a lot of people.

If the GOP was a baseball team, we'd fire its manager - or if a school in Rhode Island, we'd fire the school. And after Health Care passes on Sunday - and the a) sky doesn't fall as predicted by the McConnells, Boehners, Limbaughs and Becks and b) millions get health care and there's deficit reduction - what then will Republicans say? For now, they resolutely promise to try to run this Fall on a platform favoring an insurance industry re-takeover of health care. Don't they understand the aphorism that if you're in a hole, stop digging?

The Whigs disappeared because they flunked the test of slavery. And a modern party that's all Lutz and no-heart, that rejects modern reality, that fails to adapt to the needs of families buffeted by change in a global economy will deserve to suffer as did the British at Gallipoli when they too overrelied on outdated tactics and bravado.

Over time, today's Republicans are tomorrow's Whigs. What historian Tony Judt complained about in his recent book Ill Fares the Land will come to be understood by a grateful country -- the idea that taxes might be a common good, "a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation (roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, not to mention soldiers and warships, and weapons)."