Party on, GOP

Let Republicans act clueless while Obama rallies the country around school construction and aid to locals, and wins back higher ground.

By Joan Walsh

Published February 11, 2009 1:20PM (EST)

My daughter went to one of the best public grade schools in San Francisco, Claire Lilienthal Elementary, a K-8 magnet school that always had tons more applicants than space. We loved it there. I only have happy memories. But one happy memory had a creepy footnote -- at a parent-teacher conference in 6th grade, when we were getting personalized feedback about our creative but sometimes overly boisterous but always fabulous daughter (now in college), her dad and I watched, amazed, as a village of mice ran along the walls from bookshelf to bookshelf.

Nora's teacher, now a friend, just rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah. It's OK. We're going to be out of this temporary portable any day now." And she rolled her eyes again. When I visited the school last year, six years later, for a party they threw for the 2004 eighth grade class that became 2008 high school grads -- again, that's the kind of loving community school it is -- the ratty, rundown "temporaries" were still there, looking ever more permanent.

That's the way it is all over America, where we mouth platitudes like "No Child Left Behind" and disrespect and insult our children by housing them in unsafe, too hot, too cold, poorly equipped and vermin-infested buildings in every city, every day. Again, this was a great school in wealthy San Francisco, and Nora got a terrific education. But this is part of what Barack Obama is talking about when he's trying to hold the line on keeping school construction funds in the stimulus package. First of all, it will create jobs, everywhere, but symbolically, he's also saying: Even privileged children in America are attending rodent-infested schools, people, and it really has to stop.

The so-called Senate compromise spearheaded by Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Susan Collins stripped out school construction funds that both the House and the Senate had supported. The process is even more complicated than the media is letting on. The House and the Senate, themselves, disagreed on a lot of things -- the Senate took out some House environmental programs and added some FBI, DOJ and prison construction funds. The Nelson-Collins compromise took out some of the law-enforcement money the Senate wanted, but its main move was to strip big priorities both the Senate and House asked for: school construction funding and aid to states and cities. Those two things accounted for roughly $600 million of the $800 million or so "savings" in the compromise.

People are trying to set this up as Nancy Pelosi vs. Arlen Specter. But point of personal privilege here: Why is the woman, in this case Pelosi, always the shrew, the harpy  (Hillary), the rogue diva (Sarah Palin), the dangerous radical (Clinton and Palin)? Pelosi's bill added way more in tax cuts than the San Francisco Democrat would have backed on her own. But she's being blamed for sabotaging Obama: shades of Hillary! In fact, Senate Democrats wanted what Pelosi wanted on those two big points, school construction funding and state and local aid -- and so does President Obama. She's not out there on her own -- at least not yet. The sexism here is crushing.

On "Hardball" Tuesday night Chris Matthews asked me if I'm one of those San Francisco "firebrands" who want the Democrats to hold out for what they are trying to get, even if it blows up the Collins-Nelson compromise. I hedged on TV, but I think I am. Not to blow anything up, but because I believe, to be effective, the stimulus needs to be bigger than the compromise, and it needs more of what the House and Senate put in it. I hope Obama fights to get school construction and aid for cities and states back in the bill. In my beautiful, tragic California, the DMV was closed last Friday, judges are releasing convicts from overcrowded prisons, and we'll be laying off teachers, firefighters and police if there's no relief soon. Trying to save or create 4 million jobs, as Obama says his plan will do, is a joke if cities and states are meanwhile laying off millions of workers. Obama knows that; he has to act.

I think Obama came out of the gate compromising too much with Republicans, and he admitted as much at his press conference Monday night. "Just in terms of the historic record here: The Republicans were brought in early and were consulted. Remember when we introduced our framework: They were pleasantly surprised and complimentary about the tax cuts that were presented in that framework. Those tax cuts are still in there! I suppose what I could have done was I could have started out with no tax cuts, knowing I was gonna want some, and maybe that's the lesson I should have learned." Maybe it is.

Politics aside, I think Obama should stand up for the stimulus bill he and his economic advisors believe will help the economy -- which most people say is a big stimulus bill, not one trimmed by Republicans for political reasons. He should push for the measure he thinks will work. Let me go back to my daughter again. I used this analogy today on "Hardball": If she was sick, and doctors told me they needed to do certain aggressive things to make her well, but someone came along and said, well, maybe we can't be so aggressive, maybe we have to compromise and do less than what the experts advise -- well, I would fight like hell to get the measures I'd been told would make her well. Nobody would stop me. And I expect Obama to do no less for our economy.

And if he holds out and loses Collins, Specter and Olympia Snowe, maybe the Democrats can revisit the tyranny of the minority rules they agreed to (but never used well) banishing the old-fashioned filibuster. I'd like to see John McCain and David Vitter up all night, on CSPAN, talking against the stimulus bill, sharing their empty ideas with all of America. Clearly they have decided their salvation as a party is, belatedly, being the party of small government, after they doubled the deficit under Bush. Good luck with that, fellas.

I think Obama should say: Party on, GOP. But we're not going to let you continue to wreck our economy the way you have these last eight years. According to Gallup, Americans back Obama's stimulus plan, and Obama, overwhelmingly this week, despite some missteps on appointees as well as the stimulus sales job. He's got political capital to spend -- I mean, invest -- and if he does it wisely, even Republicans will prosper. He's got to call their bluff on this.



Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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