Editor's note: This is the first in a series of commentaries we'll post throughout the day, viewing Tuesday's election results from a variety of perspectives.
Grand Marais, Minn. - About 10 days before the election, a Facebook friend called attention to a funny poster. It shows the face of President George W. Bush, thanking the American people for blaming President Obama instead of himself for all he'd done. There is truth in that poster, but it's not the full truth.
Bush did much to create the federal financial problems the nation confronts today. He did this by combining extraordinary spending -- on two wars, a Medicare drug program and a $700 billion TARP response to the financial meltdown -- with very large, skewed-to-the-wealthy tax cuts that dramatically reduced revenue available to pay for everything. He bought out the store on OUR credit card, to the tune of more than $5 trillion in federal debt.
The spending that President Obama has done -- chiefly on his stimulus packages -- added only a small increment to the debt that Bush piled up. And Obama's spending came in the context of a severe recession, when deficits are precisely the kindling needed to help spark economic growth. Deficits and debt do matter, but you attend to them once you've got the economic fire well and truly stoked.
I watched with chagrin as Republican candidates in the campaign just ended accused Democrats of taxing and spending the nation's way to perdition. It was hypocrisy of a rank order. I thought former President Bill Clinton had it exactly right in his stump speech for Democrats. The Republicans, he said, left the nation in a big hole in 2008. The Democrats have had less than two years to repair the damage. Obama and his allies have done all the right things, Clinton said, and while "we didn't get you out of the hole ... at least we stopped digging."
The results of this election -- ceding control of the U.S. House, both houses of the state Legislature and possibly the governor's office to the Republicans -- punishes the Democrats for doing those right things and rewards the Republicans for digging that big hole.
If we're ever going to work our way out of that hole, we will need to do a great deal more than lash out at incumbent politicians. Rep. Jim Oberstar may have lost touch and earned the comeuppance he received at the polls Tuesday. By itself, however, replacing him with novice Chip Cravaack does nothing to fix things. To do that, we need to understand how we arrived at this point, then join in fashioning a solution that actually works.
Understanding the fix we're in requires a more macro perspective, and from that perspective, President Bush and the Republicans didn't have much to do with creating the problem, though they made it worse. Nor could President Obama and the Democrats be expected to fix it quickly, though they tried.
For a period of 60 years, from the late 1920s to the end of the 1980s, this nation faced a series of severe threats -- the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Those threats had the effect of pushing Americans toward the middle. Political extremism was not tolerated (the McCarthy era and Vietnam protests were anomalies). We hewed to a moderate middle line. Internationally, countries were forced somewhat artificially into either the American or the Soviet camp, with a great barrier between them that hampered both political and economic exchange.
Through most of that period -- excluding the Depression years -- our economy also was producing great gains, particularly for the middle class. Ours was the only economy in the world to come out of the Great Depression and World War II poised for great growth.
The end of the Cold War finally relieved us of the successive threats that had thrown us toward the political middle, again allowing us to entertain our political extremes and to resume fighting like cats and dogs.
The Cold War's end also ushered in, at just the right time in the march of technology, the conditions for a globalization of the world economy. While we were at each other's throats, China, India and others were stealing our economic lunch. The middle class that had made such great advances through the middle of the 20th century suddenly found itself squeezed. Jobs disappeared, factories closed, homes got repossessed, and the future awaiting our children and grandchildren -- once bright beyond measure -- shriveled.
We are frightened, to the point of panic, that the American dream has turned to ashes. Everything is changing, at a pace too rapid for most of us to comprehend. And in our extreme fright, we lash out irrationally at anyone we can possibly hold responsible. Frequently, the targets of our extreme despair are those working hardest and most rationally to fashion a solution.
That's not going to help.
Jim Boyd a retired Star Tribune editor who now lives in Grand Marais. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.