Even by the standards of today's remake-happy market, it's been disconcerting to see that Disney's Cartesian teen comedy Freaky Friday—redone in a popular version just a few months ago—is already furnishing the basic outlines for another entertainment retread. This time the action has been moved to the nation's capital, and the lead roles are being taken by nominal Republican and Democratic leaders, whose bodies, mere physical husks even under the best circumstances, now host the minds, spirits and vices of their putative opposite numbers. They continue to look and sound like, respectively, conservatives and liberals; but no voter can escape the conclusion that the evil party and the stupid party have decided to switch roles.
Exhibit A is Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), last seen dragging his superannuated bulk onto the Senate floor to filibuster against a massive expansion of Medicare drug benefits, the sort of bill Kennedy has spent his entire career trying to promote. "I'm going to fight this bill with everything I've got," the crapulous lawmaker vowed. "The more senior citizens learn…the more they oppose it." Kennedy, a senior himself, has of course learned the most damning fact of all about this bill: that it is widely supported by the Republicans and by President Bush.
Kennedy's Damascus conversion in opposing a bill that promises to beggar future generations will not go unpunished. For the Republicans have lately decided to give up even the pretense of being the party of fiscal responsibility. "American seniors deserve [free drugs from the government]," Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told CNN yesterday, "and they're going to get it. Republicans are going to lead on this." And indeed the Republicans have led, with a full-court press in the Senate (described as "masterful" or "dictatorial," depending on your side of the aisle) that nipped Kennedy's sing-a-thon in the bud and virtually guaranteed the Medicare bill will reach the President's willing pen.
Such a free-spending approach to your tax dollars might have seemed the height of un-Republican behavior a few short years ago. But that was before the tragic events of September 11, 2001 convinced GOP lawmakers that without an $11 billion expansion of the No Child Left Behind program, tariffs to protect domestic steel and textile industries, and cotton and corn subsidies as high as an elephant's eye, the terrorists would surely win. A new report from the Heritage Foundation reveals just how much GOP control of the executive and legislative branches has expanded Washington spending on a host of programs.
Briefly, the report by Brian M. Riedl reveals that Republicans have managed to increase spending to a level of $20,000 per household, the highest it's been since World War II. Federal spending has increased by $296 billion in the last two years; only 45 percent of that spending has been related to the war on terror—quite an achievement considering that the GOP already gives itself enormous latitude in defining war-related spending. The remaining 55 percent has been taken up with such traditional GOP faves as unemployment (up 85 percent since 2001), education (up 65 percent) and general government costs (up 63 percent, largely thanks to federal bailouts of state governments).
But perhaps this focus on domestic spending tells only part of the story. Certainly a look at foreign policy initiatives should reveal the Republicans and Democrats at their traditional best, with GOP hawks standing up for America's interest while dithering Democrats lay waste their talents with Wilsonian skylarking.
Perhaps not. Since the invasion of Iraq, virtually all the traditionally conservative arguments for the war—threats to national security, protection against expansionist rogues, etc.—have vanished like the gambler's lucky streak. In their place, the war's proponents have fallen back on the very gushiest of neo-liberal wishes about helping unfortunate foreigners get a hand up (and a handout). The role reversal here has been especially stark: Bush Administration allies now expect us to root for the welfare of Iraqis who are driven by societal root causes to mutilate the bodies of American soldiers. The Democratic opposition, for its part, is in the odd position of opposing a war effort that freed millions from the bloodiest dictator of our time. (Back in the good old days of Kosovo and Bosnia, you could depend on Democrats to get behind any war effort from which Americans had no chance of benefiting.)
So who's zoomin' who? It's getting harder to tell every day. Should the Republicans and Democrats ever manage to get another magical fortune cookie that will allow them to return to their original bodies, we may see a happy return to the old days, when the two parties were guided by their essential principles. Or maybe we'll just realize that those principles have always had the solidity and stability of Flubber.