Ross Douthat is back with another one of those articles where he pretends that the Republican Party is “moderating.” And that means that Jonathan Chait had to write an article where he mocks Douthat but strangely agrees with him. They are both wrong. So let me sort this all out.
On Sunday, Douthat wrote, At Last, Conservative Reform. That title is hilarious because that describes at least six columns a year for Douthat. He can be forgiven to some extent, since he doesn’t write his own headlines. But that headline is totally accurate. Douthat notes that at the end of Bush’s term in office, conservative policy “wonks” had run out of ideas. I might note that all their previous ideas had run the economy into the ground, but I’ll leave that for now. Once Obama got in office, said wonks like Yuval Levin (!) got to work and came up with lots of “new” ideas. But they weren’t real as long as nationally known politicians weren’t championing them. But now they are! Or at least Douthat thinks that.
Chait responded with, I Have Seen the Future of the Republican Party, and It Is George W Bush. It provides a really good rundown of just how good and serious these ideas are:
The weakness of these plans is that, because they add on to the existing party agenda rather than try to replace it, they don’t fully make sense. For instance, Rubio claims his tax credit plan is deficit neutral, which means his proposal to redirect more tax credits to low-income workers without children would have to come out of the pockets of low income workers with children. Or else he’d have to break his vow and add to the deficit. Lee’s tax reform likewise has no real numbers, for the same reason: the math does not work.
Chait suggests a new avenue for the Republicans: a return to Bush! He says that what really makes the Republican proposals sound so vile to any but the conservative hardcore is that they insist upon balancing the federal budget. If they just give up this idea, they can have unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich, unpaid-for wars, and have a little left over for unpaid-for pandering to the middle class. And most important: they won’t have to make life any worse for the poor.
Let me be very clear on this point: this is what the Republicans will do if they get back in power. This is what the Republicans always do when they get back in power. Of course, this is not what they say they will do. And I think Chait tries to pull a fast one by saying that Bush the Younger walked back the Republican austerity agenda during the 2000 campaign. Of course he did! The federal government had a budget surplus. But what did Reagan run on 1980? Balanced budget. (Along with a 30% tax cut, of course; because you can have it all if you are a Republican!) What did Bush the Elder run on in 1988? Balanced budget. And then the Republican base got mad at him for doing something about it.
In general, voters (Not just the conservative ones!) like the idea of a balanced budget. But they don’t like the reality of it. They don’t like cuts to the entitlements or the war machine or basically anything but “foreign aid,” which is less than 1% of the federal budget. What’s more, they don’t like tax increases, although in recent years, the middle class has been so badly squeezed that they are more and more comfortable with a “soak the rich” policy. (A “soaking” is now defined as an increase in the top marginal tax rate of 4.6 percentage points.) But the people will vote for a candidate who promises the impossible and then borrows like mad once in office.
The problem is with the Republican base. There really is a change there. During the 2016 Republican primary, I don’t believe that they will go along with a softening of the intolerance rhetoric. Mitt Romney didn’t talk about the makers versus the takers because he especially wanted to. He did it because the base eats it up. It is who they are. They want to be told the world is divided into the good and bad. They are the good who contribute (even though they usually come from states that take more from the government than the produce in taxes). And those are the bad people who just take and take and take.
After what will then have been seven years of nonstop hysteria about the budget deficit, I don’t think that the base will turn on a dime and decide to support a candidate who says that the budget isn’t a big deal. Yes, politicians will be able to do that. Chait correctly notes that Cheney went from “deficits don’t matter” to “debt crisis” with the ease of a ballet dancer. But there are consequences for political rhetoric. Look at the huge increase in attacks on LGBTs in Russia right now—that didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Once the Republicans choose a candidate for president, he (And I do mean he!) might be able to walk back some of the red meat that was necessary to get the nomination. But Mitt Romney did try to do that. There is only so much you can do. However, it is really important to remember that Romney didn’t lose because of his extreme views or the 47% comment or any of that. He lost because the economy was doing okay. If there is an economic crisis in mid-2016, almost anyone the Republicans run will have a very good chance of winning. And that would be a catastrophe.
You may remember that I disagree with Thomas Frank that the Republicans intentionally wreck the government so that liberals, once back in power, will have to spend their time cleaning up the mess rather than enacting liberal policy. The important word there is “intentionally.” The fact remains that Frank is right that this is what Republicans do. And if the Democrats lose the White House in 2016, we will repeat the cycle all over again, but not with a budget surplus and a strong economy.
So for the umpteenth time, there will be no Republican “reform” in 2016. If they start losing off-year elections, then the party will start to change. But until then, it is going to mean more pandering to the base and fratricide. There is nothing to the minor and vague reforms of Rubio and Lee. There will be no re-ignition of “compassionate conservatism.” There will just be more of the same.
Chait says that he wants a better Republican Party because regardless they will eventually get back in power. I totally agree. But things like “compassionate conservative” are all for show. There was nothing that distinguished the two Bush presidencies other than the fact that the second one was managed much worse. So I want a better Republican Party, not better Republican rhetoric.