Earlier today, Paul Krugman wrote a very interesting article, Trick or Tweak. It’s basically about the new Republican policy book Room to Grow, although it isn’t mentioned by name. As he noted, “More specifically, the ‘reform conservatives’ seem mainly to be offering supposedly new ideas for the sake of being seen to offer new ideas.” To me, this gets to the fundamental problem with the current Republican Party. It isn’t that they don’t have “new ideas.” In general, the issue is not new ideas. It is rare to have new ideas in politics. The problem with the Republican Party is that in terms of its politics, it has ossified. They have become the party of “all or nothing.” They are unwilling to compromise.
Krugman rightly notes that the two parties are pretty much the same as they ever were, “Liberals want a strong social safety net, financed with relatively high taxes, especially on high incomes.” Meanwhile, “Conservatives want much less of a safety net, and much lower taxes on the affluent.” The problem is that conservatives have become delusional. When Reagan came into power, he offered up the belief that by shoveling money to the rich, it would make everyone better off. And to people not paying attention, that seemed to work. The economy did well under him. But we know that this had nothing to do with these policies and everything to do with the Federal Reserve.
But even if you gave the Reagan tax cut credit for the economic recovery of the 1980s, the recovery was not terribly robust, especially after the deep recession the country was coming out of. The economy did not grow as fast as it did under Johnson before him. And it did not grow as fast as it did under Clinton after him. And then there is the issue that I discussed in, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. So not only did we get only a modest economic boom under Reagan, the middle class actually ended up paying more in taxes. Krugman was right when he noted specifically that conservatives want lower taxes on the affluent. That’s all they care about; note that they had no problem with the payroll tax holiday ending.
What really drives the Republicans, however, is not any false lessons they learned from Reagan. What drives them is the false lesson they learned from Bush the Elder. The lesson is that you can never raise taxes. Actually, if there is a lesson that should have been learned from Bush, it is this: don’t make ostentatious political promises you don’t know you can keep. (In fact, at the time, some of Bush’s economic advisers tried to get the “read my lips” promise removed from his speech.) But what Republicans have learned is not about winning general elections; it’s about winning primaries.
I think where we are today is the natural result of that false lesson about never raising taxes. Because being committed to never raising taxes means that the government will never have enough money. During good economic times, the Republicans insist upon lowering taxes because it is wrong for the government to take more money than it needs (eg 2001 tax cut). And then they insist upon lowering taxes when the economy is bad because we need stimulus (eg 2003 tax cut). This ultimately leads to Grover Norquist’s idea to “shrink [the government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Of course, the truth is that Republicans don’t want to drown the government in the bathtub. Neither does Norquist. The Republicans firmly believe in taking money away from the poorer classes and using it to enrich the already rich. Bush’s prescription drug benefit was partly about giving a benefit to older people who tend to vote Republican. But mostly, it was a huge giveaway to the drug companies. His War on Terror was as much about giving money to military contractors as anything else. And his attempt to privatize Social Security was about rewarding Wall Street.
What I’m saying is that the Republican Party itself is not an honest broker. The Democrats really do want to do what they say. That’s not to say they are perfect or anything. But they wanted healthcare reform and they were even willing to use the Republicans’ own plan to get it. Not only would the opposite not be true. When the Democrats did that, the Republicans abandoned their own plan. Remember: not a single congressional Republican voted for the ACA. So the only time you can get any idea of what the Republicans really want to do is when they are in power. And for that, you have to look at the years 2003-2007
So let’s go back to how Krugman described them, “Conservatives want much less of a safety net, and much lower taxes on the affluent.” They don’t want to destroy the government; they just want to destroy the parts of it that help the poorer classes. The Tea Party makes bold stands and sounds downright libertarian. But once Republicans are back in power, they will do what they always do: run up deficits that the Democrats will later sacrifice their own agenda to manage; and funnel money to their key constituents. And once out of power, Republicans will go back to the same hysterics about out of control spending.
Leave aside the fact that the ideas in Room to Grow are extremely weak tea. The fact remains that the book and the entire conservative “reform” movement does nothing but provide political cover for the Republican Party. It allows David Brooks to say, “[T]he most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.” It is just apologia. Regardless, we don’t need “new” ideas; we need good ideas, and we already have a lot of those. It’s just that they don’t come from the Republicans.