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President Obama's second Inaugural was the spirited, full-throated defense of the role that government plays in making our society more just that liberals have been waiting to hear for years. While most pundits focused on what the speech said about Obama, I think it's more significant in what it says about the Republican Party, especially in this key passage:
We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty, and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
There has always been an element on the far right that opposed the programs of the New Deal and Great Society. But no Republican presidents -- from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush -- made a serious efforts to overturn them. Why? Because, as President Eisenhower once wrote, it would be terrible politics.
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
But what used to be a "splinter" fringe in the GOP somewhere along the line became the GOP. When George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security after mentioning it in his 2nd Inaugural, his effort was soundly rejected by the electorate, and the GOP was routed in 2006 and 2008 at the polls. And what did Republicans do in response? Nominate for the Vice Presidency an Ayn Rand devotee who wants to end Social Security, whose budget (which they passed) ended Medicare as we know it, and who once called the majority of Americans "takers." Mitt Romney was at the top of the ticket, but make no mistake: this is Paul Ryan's party.
That Obama had to defend the New Deal and Great Society in his inaugural -- programs that stretch back 80 years -- says a lot more about the radicalization of the GOP than it does him.