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Our Desperate Need for Honest Leadership

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What a week it has been! On Monday the New York Times' conservative columnist, David Brooks, was criticizing the Republican Party in the harshest terms. On Friday, the paper's liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was attacking President Obama for adopting the conservative fiscal agenda and betraying his core progressive creed. What's going on?

For Brooks, we are faced with what he called "the mother of all no-brainers." We now have broad agreement in Congress that we must deal with the long-term deficit, and this itself is a victory for the Republicans. They control the political discourse, and they can achieve many of their economic goals. But in a move that recalls the Dems' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Republicans refuse to make a deal that would reduce the deficit by trillions.

Brooks is scathing:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That's because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

And he goes on:

Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

He concludes that if the talks on the debt ceiling fail, it will be clear that the Republicans are not fit to govern.

Krugman is just as exercised by what he sees as Obama's failure to apply either progressive values or sensible economic principles in his approach to dealing with the Republican deficit hawks:

But let's be frank. It's getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama's motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.'s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that's not a false impression; maybe it's the simple truth.

For years, Krugman has viewed Obama's compromises as an abdication of his responsibilities, and he speculates that the president is trying a Clintonesque maneuver that may have political sense but is an economic disaster. In a period of anemic job growth, Obama's channeling of Herbert Hoover's economic philosophies will only prolong the experience of dire recession for millions of Americans.

Brooks and Krugman both see that the Republican Party has been enormously successful in focusing attention on fiscal responsibility, which is resulting across the country in massive cuts to spending. These cuts will necessarily cause most pain to the most vulnerable -- those who depend on government services. If the GOP were really serious about fiscal responsibility, its members would complement the cuts already won with increased revenue from those who have reaped the greatest rewards from our economic environment. This is what a political party ready to govern should do.

Meanwhile, we have an epidemic of unemployment, and nothing that the government is now doing is addressing this issue. Where is the enormous intellectual and political energy that Obama's team displayed in preventing a banking system collapse, and that saved a large segment of the American automobile industry? Why has the president not had the courage of his convictions? Can he really believe that an imaginary bipartisan political pragmatism will trump economic realities?

Sensible government seems to have become a contradiction in terms. Democratic leaders have no ideas of their own, while Republican leaders are dedicated to protecting the rich -- not to fiscal responsibility. Republican "non-starter" talk about additional revenue is an ideological fixation, not an economic theory. Democrats pandering to their base with calls to maintain the entitlement status quo won't produce a sustainable health care system.

Protecting the least vulnerable remains the Republican's highest priority, while protecting their political future seems to be what concerns Democrats. Where can we find honest leadership worthy of the name? We desperately need it.

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