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John Waelti: Real events vs. political dogma
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Everybody has an opinion about politics, myself included. That and a couple of bucks might get me a cup of coffee. But since I have followed politics during my entire career, and have placed my reputation and credibility on the line in a rough race for partisan office in small town, rural America, I believe my observations to be at least as credible as the pundits inside the Washington echo chamber. So, here goes.

Perhaps because of my contrarian nature, I grew up as a Democrat in this predominantly Republican community. Early on, I perceived that Democrats are more "for the little guy." That appealed to me. It was college and graduate school, studying economics during the Kennedy era that convinced me that the Democratic Party promotes more enlightened economic and social policies that are best for the long run good of the nation. Of course, not all economists are Democrats, and economists differ widely on economic policy - the subject of a forthcoming column.

Sure, I know economists are expected to extol the virtues of free enterprise, entrepreneurship and the dictates of prices and markets. And I surely do. But there is a vast difference between understanding and appreciating the incentives of prices and markets, and worshipping them. After all, the system should serve the broader goals of society. We need not be slaves to it.

So what has this to do with the politics of today?

Shrewd politicians with good political antennae have a way of jumping in front of the parade and pretending they are leading it. But people realize that politicians don't lead. They generally lag the electorate in perception and solution of problems, and seldom act until pushed.

Let's be clear; I'm as critical of politicians as anyone - that's why I ran for office myself. But I cannot chastise or blame politicians for lagging the electorate. The system is designed to be reactive rather than proactive. The rare elected politician who tries to be proactive is very lonely.

My point is that real-world events have a way of swamping political agendas and partisan dogma. Politicians can anticipate and control very little - they mainly react, and then not until the electorate screams for action - like on health care reform, or after the economy tanks.

Cataclysmic events and the broad sweep of history overwhelm presidents and the Congress. Emerging issues at all levels overwhelm partisan political dogma. It has happened in the past to Democrats. It is happening now to Republicans, trapped by their own rhetoric.

Sen. Arlen Specter's transition from the Republican Party to the Democrats illustrates my point. The Republican Party of yore was represented by moderates such as Mark Hatfield of the Northwest, Charles Percy of the Midwest, and a slew of moderates from New England. But no longer. Barry Goldwater in 1964 failed to take the country to the right. It wasn't ready for it, or him. But where Goldwater failed, Ronald Reagan succeeded in 1980. Sure, he was charismatic in his own way. And I credit him with sincerity. But the country was ready for his philosophy when he jumped in front of the parade.

Republican success was extended by their well-oiled machine - operatives such as Lee Atwater, and politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay employing slash and burn tactics. These "take no prisoners" and "no compromise-destroy the opposition" tactics were perfected by Karl Rove. Serious observers talked of a permanent Republican majority. Moderate Republicans became an endangered species.

But real-world events and issues have a way of rendering standard partisan fare obsolete. When millions of Americans lose their jobs and their health insurance while still a decade away from the protective mantle of Medicare - originated by Democrats - Republican platitudes of "get government out of the way" ring hollow. The "get government off our backs" and "deregulation era" of financial markets has run its course. Real world events have eclipsed standard Republican rhetoric of shrinking the role of government in the economy. People want effective government.

When Republican political leaders and their right-wing talk show claque cheer Sen. Specter's exit from the Republican Party because he was not "pure," hence not worthy of the Republican label, it's clear that Republican dogma still prevails over reality. Moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins must be among the loneliest people in Washington today.

I doubt the Republicans will insist on self-immolation by following their hard right leaders and screaming talk-show spokesmen over the cliff. For the good of the nation, there should be two responsible political parties.

We have a new charismatic president of supreme intelligence and political savvy who has inherited more intractable problems than any president since FDR. Sen. Specter is a welcome addition. But this is no time for Democrats to gloat. There is too much work to be done and, as the president recognizes, Specter will not be a rubber stamp. He does, however, increase the probability of progress on issues such as health care finance reform.

The Democrats should seek Republican cooperation, but need not and should not cave in to them while their leaders insist on remaining "the party of no." The nation did not elect Barack Obama to perpetuate the standard Republican agenda that has been caught short by real-world events.

If history is any guide, Republican pragmatists eventually will emerge.

It may take awhile, but real-world events have a way of eclipsing political dogma.

- Monroe resident John Waelti is former Professor of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota; and Professor Emeritus, New Mexico State University. He can be reached at