In his essay for the Fall 2012 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, "Extremism in Defense of Liberty," senior editor William Voegeli argued that political centrism is too incoherent to win elections. For this edition of "Upon Further Review," we've invited Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party; Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume study The Age of Reagan; and David Frum, author of Why Romney Lost (And What the GOP Can Do About It), to comment.
Kabaservice: It was a pleasure to read your essay on moderation, which touched on my recent book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. The greatest compliment a critic can pay an author is to take his work seriously. Your article was absorbing, well argued, and clear—much clearer than the truth! For the record, I don't believe that the Republican Party has gone insane. But I do believe that, in shucking off moderation and indeed most of its history, the GOP has damaged its long-term electability and effectiveness. This is something that ought to concern conservatives more than your essay would suggest.
We are in full agreement that there were lots of problems with the moderate Republicans of yesteryear. Some were opportunists like Nelson Rockefeller, others were too gentlemanly to be effective politicians, and many were overly fond of the status quo and more concerned with making nice with the dominant liberal Democrats of the pre-Reagan era than challenging them. Why then should any Republican miss them today? Basically, because the Republican Party can't be a governing party without them.
I doubt you'll agree with this proposition, since like most conservatives you feel that today's ideology-fueled, tea-injected Republican Party provides an inspiring contrast to "moderation's history of electoral and governmental futility." It's true that before the 1980 election, the moderate-dominated GOP seemed fated to be a permanent minority party. But it's not unreasonable to fear a similar fate for today's conservative GOP. Republicans have failed to win a majority in the Senate in the last four elections, and have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The Republicans actually lost the popular vote in the House in the last election, retaining control only because of redistricting by GOP-controlled state legislatures. As you're no doubt aware, all of the electoral-demographic patterns in this country are trending against the GOP, as the Democrats enjoy widening margins of support among minorities, women, young people, urbanites, and middle-class professionals. And according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of Americans (53%) feel that the Republicans' main problem is not poor leadership or bad messaging but that they are too conservative and unconcerned with "the welfare of the people, particularly those in the lower and middle income levels." So there's considerable reason to doubt that turning the GOP into an uncompromising ideological party has improved its long-term electability.
But let's say that today's conservative Republican would rather be (hard) right than be president. Electoral disadvantage aside, wouldn't one expect that today's disciplined ideological troops would achieve more policy victories than the wimpy, disorganized Republicans of old? Unfortunately, no. In two-party, non-parliamentary, narrowly divided government, a policy advance for one side requires at least a few votes from the other side, which means that both sides have to compromise. But by definition there can be no compromising on principle, which means that an ideologically committed party must either force the other side into unconditional surrender or accept defeat. The consequences of this logic are playing themselves out in the House as I type, with the uncompromising Republicans having repudiated Speaker John Boehner's attempt to secure a budget deal that would have achieved about 90% of what his conference wanted. The end result is now likely to be close to 100% of what Democrats want, and even as conservative a commentator as Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post complains that the outcome "suggests Republicans are not capable of governing."
What reason is there to believe that the GOP would fare better if moderates were still a part of the Republican coalition? Well, for one thing, moderates fared much better electorally with those groups whose votes currently provide the margin of victory against Republican candidates. It's worth remembering that Dwight Eisenhower won about two-fifths of the African-American vote in 1956, and even Richard Nixon won over a third of black voters in 1960. It was much more difficult for Democrats to claim that Republicans didn't care about minorities, city-dwellers, and the poor when moderates (and even conservatives like Jack Kemp) were making headlines with outreach efforts to those groups and Republican policy alternatives to bureaucratic, centralized Democratic programs such as the War on Poverty.
And there's also considerable historical evidence that the moderates were not quite as unprincipled and ineffective as you suggest. I'd argue that most moderate Republicans were better fiscal conservatives than the Tea Partiers, at least if fiscal conservatism is understood to mean balancing the budget through a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases (including taxation). There has been no more fiscally conservative president in the last 80 years than the moderates' hero Dwight Eisenhower, who was the last president to balance the budget three times and reduce the ratio of national debt to GNP. It would be nice if today's supposed fiscal conservatives would stop denouncing him as a RINO. True, Eisenhower subscribed to a philosophy of prudence in international affairs, and prudence can sometimes be synonymous with inaction. But prudence kept Eisenhower from intervening in Vietnam, and how many people now think that was the wrong decision?
It's also worth remembering that the moderate Republicans' great cause in the 1960s was civil rights, which they pursued with a most un-moderate consistency, passion (even bellicosity), and effectiveness. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were as much Republican accomplishments as Democratic ones, and a greater proportion of Republicans than Democrats voted for both measures.
As you say, my book is a valedictory for the moderates, not a claim that they will ever again be a dominant force in the GOP. But the experience of grappling with moderates had an educative effect on conservatives like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr., which made them better equipped to govern than the leaders of the current moderate-free GOP.
Voegeli: I'm glad you feel CRB treated Rule and Ruin fairly, Geoff. That absorbing book, like your opening contribution to this forum, raises important questions rendered all the more pressing by the Republicans' bitter 2012 election.
Since I wrote so much about the extent and justification of the GOP's extremism in the last issue, I suggest we go at the question from the other end: what would it take, and what would it accomplish, to "re-moderate" the 21st-century Republican Party? You believe "the GOP would fare better if moderates were still a part of the Republican coalition," because "shucking off moderation" has damaged the party's "long-term electability and effectiveness." Electability and effectiveness are, of course, two sides of the same coin. An unelectable party is never in a position to effect anything, while a party in power that proves ineffective can't hope to win future elections.
Let's stipulate for the sake of the argument that you're right about the Republicans' need to reverse the course of the past half-century, shucking off their disdain for moderates and moderation. What does that mean, and how does that work? I'm still not sure, even after reading and thinking about Rule and Ruin, how much moderation is about tone, and how much is about substance. Two years ago Mitch Daniels, Republican governor of Indiana at the time, gave a widely noted speech where he endorsed a "more affirmative, ‘better angels' approach to voters" since if Republicans hope to win their support "it would help if they liked us, just a bit." It's just about impossible to quarrel with that advice.
But after finishing charm school, what do Republicans do? Is Daniels the kind of politician the GOP needs more of? My sense is that he was a very conservative governor over his eight years in office. Upon being elected in 2004, he began his administration by proposing the kind of fiscal balance you recommend—specifically, spending cuts combined with an income tax surcharge on families with six-figure incomes. The tax proposal went nowhere, however, and Daniels dropped it. Everything else he pursued and, mostly, attained sounds like a to-do list from the Cato Institute: cutting spending, writing property tax limitations into the state constitution, privatizing infrastructure, making health savings accounts the centerpiece of the state's Medicaid program, expanding school choice, and signing right-to-work legislation.
If moderation needs to be substantive rather than just tonal, Daniels's approach should have failed. He won a 58-to-40% landslide reelection in 2008, however, even as Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana since 1964. Daniels even tripled his portion of the black vote from 7% in 2004 to 20%.
And if tax increases are indispensible to a politically and fiscally viable approach to balanced budgets, Indiana's finances should have been crippled by his failure to enact that income tax surcharge. In fact, however, the state is in much better shape than it was when Daniels was elected, even after the Great Recession. The anti-tax reactionaries who dismissed Daniels's surcharge proposal appear to have had a point: tax revenue to the government equals, always and everywhere, the tax-rate structure multiplied by the tax base. Thus, expanding the tax base is an alternative to increasing tax rates. If more prudent, better administered government spending and regulating allows the government to accomplish more with less, then tax increases are not indispensible. And if those tax increases provide a pretext not to streamline government, or if they shrink rather than expand the tax base by discouraging investment, then the tax increases are counterproductive.
A second problem: If a re-moderated GOP is going to be more formidable than the current, post-moderate one, the crucial achievement must be a net increase in the number of Republican voters. The additions must outnumber the subtractions, that is, or the solution will be worse than the problem. Changes that convince many existing Republican voters to stay home or vote for third-party candidates, while replacing only some of them with new GOP voters, just dig the hole deeper.
Since Election Day 2012 there have been many suggestions for how Republicans can attract more swing voters or weakly attached Democrats. The recommendations include qualifying, if not jettisoning, conservative opposition to: illegal immigration; same-sex marriage; gun control; legalized abortion; or any and all tax increases. I see how each of these changes would antagonize an important element of the existing Republican coalition, but I don't see how any of them attract a new contingent of voters inside the tent. What encouraging prospects am I missing?
Kabaservice: What would it take to "re-moderate" the Republican Party? Most likely it would require some combination of defeat and leadership. The 1964 election debacle, for example, which almost wiped out the GOP, made realists of conservatives like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr. They maintained that the Republican Party should be led by conservatives, but they were convinced that the party needed to appeal to a broader constituency than right-wing true believers. I don't think the 2012 election defeats were sufficiently chastening to provoke the Republican Party into that sort of agonizing reappraisal, and I don't think there are any conservative leaders with sufficient stature to advance an outreach effort to moderates, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.
The 2012 election wasn't good for Republicans, but it wasn't a 1964-scale disaster either. The party retains the House, holds 30 of the 50 governorships, and controls the legislatures of about two dozen states. For many conservatives, that's good enough. The GOP can wreak its will in the Red States and hamstring the Democrats at the national level. I suspect that most on the right would prefer this status quo to the adjustments that would be required for the GOP to become a majority party capable of governing effectively.
What are the options for those conservative leaders who aspire to more than permanent stalemate? Well, that would require acknowledging that moderates are a significant fraction of the electorate, and that the GOP can't win an election simply by mobilizing its base. And the first step toward attracting more moderates is simply to stop repelling them. I'm sure it gives conservatives great emotional satisfaction to drive away potential Republicans who don't agree with every aspect of conservative dogma, from gun control to creationism to the notion that global warming is a conspiracy fomented by the scientific community. I'm sure it's also thrilling to replace boring but electable moderates like Mike Castle with exciting but unelectable extremists like Christine O'Donnell (or Sharron Angle, or Todd Akin, or Richard Mourdock….) But it's stupid politics, and the GOP professionals know it. The fact that they can't do anything about it shows how the tail has come to wag the dog.
The conservative movement was in better shape when its leaders had the confidence to include moderates in the GOP tent, restrain the true believers, and marginalize the extremists. Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society because he knew that its paranoia made the entire conservative movement look ridiculous and prevented them from attracting moderates. As he put it in a letter to a Birch supporter, "Our movement has got to govern. It has got to expand by bringing into the ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate left—the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives." Reagan also lectured conservatives against trying to make the GOP "a narrow sectarian party," and insisted that "It is not your duty, responsibility or privilege to tear down or to attempt to destroy others in the tent." An inability to reach out to a broader constituency for fear of angering the base is the sign of a party that has lost its nerve.
And there are other reasons besides cynical considerations of image and electability why conservatives should try to coexist with moderate Republicans again. You wrote in your essay that "fiscal responsibility" was one of those moderate goals that no "decent and reasonable person could oppose." But in fact millions of decent and reasonable Democrats opposed (and still oppose) Eisenhower-style moderate fiscal conservatism, which ought to make conservatives at least consider the possibility that the enemy of their enemy could be their friend.
The conservative Republican who has done the best job in recent years of finding common ground with fiscally responsible, pro-business moderates is, in fact, the politician you mentioned in your message: outgoing Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. Moderates have applauded his privatization and deregulation efforts, his reforms of Medicaid and public education, his capacity to work with Democrats, his ability to cut state spending without waging class warfare on the poor, his concern for minorities and the economically disadvantaged, and his willingness to at least consider tax increases as a possible means of balancing the budget. And Daniels's 2011 CPAC address that you referenced won him the affection of moderates (and the abuse of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative entertainers) for his call to downplay social issues and accept the occasional compromise in order to win over the majority of American voters.
The path toward a big-tent Republican Party is clear, and indeed has been clear for a long time. But I suspect that most Republicans will continue to prefer the purity of marginalization to the messy work of coalition-building. I know it greatly annoys conservatives when non-conservatives invoke Ronald Reagan, but the fact remains that his example of including moderates in a conservative-led party is completely alien to conservatives today. (Instead they practice what might be called Groucho Marxism: conservatives would never admit anyone to a club that's willing to have them as members.) Reagan believed that the arc of history bent toward conservatism. That meant that he was willing to work with people he only partly agreed with, and to accept compromises and half-measures so long as they were steps in the right direction. If conservatives ever recover that sense of optimism and openness, it will be good for moderates and good for the country. And, who knows, maybe conservatives will feel better too.
Hayward: Like Bill Voegeli, I enjoyed Geoffrey Kabaservice's well-researched and well-written history of moderate Republicanism, along with our convivial yet spirited discussion of the thesis that today's Republican Party is too "extreme" at the Bipartisan Policy Center last May. (You can see the C-SPAN tape of the 90-minute panel here.) Despite Kabaservice's measured and scrupulous account of moderate Republicanism, one still can't escape the sense that his and other critiques of today's Republican Party can be reduced to the desire to see the GOP resume its role as the Washington Generals to liberalism's always dazzling Harlem Reformtrotters.
There is something more than a bit precious about the way so many critics of today's Republicans hold up Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and especially Ronald Reagan as paragons of moderation, when it was impossible to find any contemporaneous appreciation for those presidents. I confidently predict—and would even be willing to entertain a wager—that at some point down the road we'll hear liberals and media mavens nostalgic for the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush, and wonder why Republicans can't embrace Bush's style of governance. Call it "No Old GOP President Left Behind."
There is no doubt that we live at a time of heightened political polarization, making the task of governing more difficult. Observing this unstable equilibrium and the high stakes involved in our ideological divisions, a distinguished political scientist made the following observation:
Democrats and Republicans are at the same time swaggering and uncertain, secure and paranoid. Each side is confident in its own hegemonic domain, but thrown off stride by its abject failure to extend its popularity and control to the other's turf. Each party is fearful that it will make a mistake and lose its own empire—not just for one term, but for decades. And each side is hopeful that it can finally capture its rightful, complete majority, by forcing the other to make the fatal mistake. The result is passive-aggressive politics, the politics of avoiding blame. Each side is so concerned about avoiding a mistake, and so intent on tarring the opposition, that taking risks to make better policy is increasingly uncommon.
That's a pretty good analytical description of the scene today, correctly perceiving the fearful symmetry of the two parties, and rightly assigning responsibility to both parties. And this assessment comes from…Norman Ornstein!—writing in 1990. The article where those words appeared bears the revealing title, "The Permanent Democratic Congress." Ah. Perhaps it's nostalgia; those faraway days when President George H.W. Bush could be compelled to break his "no new taxes" pledge no doubt seems like a golden age for certain establishment-minded observers. Ornstein now believes polarization has become "asymmetric," and that Republicans are the "insurgent outlier" of American politics, and gives a fancy chart with Republicans deviating sharply from the centerline. Isn't this a pseudo-scientific graph as rendered by M.C. Escher? Within living memory, many leading Democrats were pro-life (even Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy in the early 1970s), and about gay marriage—fuggedaboutit, as they say in New York. And have Republicans ever removed a sitting president as Democrats did with LBJ? Methinks there's some "projection" going on, as the psychologists say.
One obvious reason the "extremism" thesis is getting traction right now is the difficulty Republicans are having winning elections above the House level, and this practical failure is receiving sustained thought and attention at every conservative gathering, as it should. Kabaservice and other critics think it is because conservative views are no longer popular with voters, and there is some general polling data to support this. Perhaps, though other issue-by-issue polls often still find majorities favoring conservative positions on taxes, spending, and the size of government—sometimes even "social" issues too. In this respect nothing has changed much since the 1990s, when polls often found majority public support for a conservative position declined 10 or 15% when they were identified as Republican positions. Republicans have long labored as the uncool or unhip "daddy party" (in Maureen Dowd's famous phrase), and between the relentless onslaught of the Media-Hollywood Complex and the charisma of Barack Obama (who in this regard is the Democratic equivalent of Reagan) the Republican "image problem" has become acute.
It is not necessary to single out poor Governor Romney (who, keep in mind, ran well ahead of many losing GOP Senate candidates) to suggest that Republicans have failed badly in the rhetorical requirements of contemporary politics for molding public sentiment. One irony is that some of the supposed extremism of Republicans arises precisely from their relative success in many areas—even those said to be their greatest vulnerability. Consider the disastrous comments of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock about abortion and rape that sank their Senate campaigns. It is telling that reporters aiming to put pro-life Republicans on the defensive now have to default to the most extreme example to do so (because public opinion on abortion is slowly moving in a pro-life direction), while never once, on the other hand, asking candidate or President Obama why he supports partial-birth abortion or why he voted against the Illinois Infants Born Alive Act that outlawed infanticide. Who is the real extremist here? (Rhetorically competent candidates would have hit back with this challenge to media bias rather than fatally wounding themselves with positions presently uncongenial to a large majority.)
This is but one example of how many Republicans have grown intellectually lazy and rhetorically flabby in their duty to persuade the public with serious and sustained argument. "Low taxes" is not an argument; it is a slogan. Romney's appeal on the economy, which was usually articulated as "I have a plan" or sometimes "I know how to create jobs," seemed as though it were some kind of secret knowledge that would be revealed only in deeds after we'd elected him. It is as if Abraham Lincoln said, "I know how to free the slaves and prevent the Civil War," instead of patiently explaining and persuading citizens about the cause of the Union and the Constitution.
Let us recall that the Republican Party began its life as an "extremist" party, dedicated to the purpose of abolishing the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery. Barely within a year of its birth, the Supreme Court declared the Republican Party platform to be unconstitutional. The Republican Party the current critics of "extremism" wish we had would have said, "Oh well, I guess we should accommodate ourselves to the status quo." It was precisely that kind of accommodating moderation that prompted the great Eugene McCarthy to quip that the principal use of moderate Republicans was to shoot the wounded after the battle is over. I begin to suspect that the critics' ideal of good government would be…President David Gergen.
So, to the question, "is the Republican party extreme?" I can only answer: I certainly hope so. There is little reason or purpose for the Republican Party unless it acts with a new determination to call a decisive halt to the endless ratcheting expansion of centralized government power and reckless spending. But determination is not enough: prudence and skill are required, and these traits have been notably lacking in many Republican leaders in recent years.
Voegeli: Geoff, let's discuss some people:
Mitch Daniels: It appears we both regret the former Indiana governor's decision to forego the 2012 presidential contest, which indicates your assessment of the Republicans' path forward is not very different from mine. (Others agree.) At the same time, though, our opinions are not identical. You write of Daniels, "Moderates have applauded…his willingness to at least consider tax increases as a possible means of balancing the budget." If a mere willingness to consider tax increases is all that is necessary to win moderates' applause, did they keep applauding Daniels when he abandoned the one tax increase he proposed within his first year in office, a temporary 1% surcharge on incomes above $100,000, and then demonstrated over the subsequent seven years that it was possible to solidify Indiana's finances without tax increases but with some tax cuts? This question leads to the consideration of another Republican politician:
Paul Ryan. You wrote last year, in words that seem equally applicable to Daniels, that Representative Ryan is a conservative politician who "comes across as modest, intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and temperamentally moderate," one who has "shown little interest in divisive culture-war issues" and "is a big-tent Republican who resists calls to purge GOP dissenters." And yet, you thought that Mitt Romney's selection of the Wisconsin congressman as his running mate would have the effect of "undermining the long-term viability of the Republican Party." Your principal objection was that Ryan's budget plan "is not fiscally conservative but radical. Fiscal conservatism, if it means anything, requires that policymakers use both revenue increases and spending cuts to bring the budget into balance over the long term."
I don't understand why Daniels is the "conservative Republican who has done the best job in recent years of finding common ground with fiscally responsible, pro-business moderates," while the electoral consequences of Ryan's fiscal radicalism "would be so cataclysmic that the GOP's 1964 election wipeout under Barry Goldwater would seem a mere hiccup." The two politicians share a similar approach to presenting themselves and building coalitions, and the substantive differences between Daniels-ism and Ryan-ism appear modest and subtle. Daniels was willing to consider tax increases, but even more willing to forswear them, while Ryan's plan keeps federal revenues at 19% of Gross Domestic Product, their average since World War II. (Also, Ryan voted in favor of the recent fiscal cliff bill that raised the top federal income tax rate to where it stood in the 1990s.) Why is emulating Daniels the Republicans' path to salvation, but following Ryan their path to doom?
William Buckley and Ronald Reagan: The most important conservatives of the 20th century were, you argue, committed to a big Republican tent, one that welcomed moderates (while making clear conservatives would be numerically and politically predominant) and excluded right-wing radicals. That's correct…but there's more to the story. It's important to remember that Buckley and Reagan's determination to see an ideologically heterogeneous, internally respectful Republican Party never prevented them from acting boldly to police the GOP's leftward boundary. A few months after Barry Goldwater's 1964 defeat, Buckley decided to run for mayor of New York City as the Conservative party candidate, primarily to insist that Republican congressman John Lindsay, who had refused to endorse Goldwater, had no business being in the GOP. (Lindsay reached the same conclusion six years later, joining the Democratic Party prior to seeking its 1972 presidential nomination.) In 1970 James Buckley followed his brother's example as a Conservative candidate, not just making a point but winning a victory by defeating liberal Republican senator Charles Goodell.
In 1966 Reagan decided to seek California's Republican gubernatorial nomination, even though George Christopher was a more plausible nominee. Christopher, after all, had been elected mayor of San Francisco twice and run in statewide elections, while Reagan had never before been a candidate for any public office. Moreover, "everyone knew" after 1964 that moderates like Christopher rather than conservatives like Goldwater and Reagan were the Republican future. (Steve Hayward's The Age of Reagan chronicles that 1966 campaign, reminding us that not all intra-Republican vituperation is propelled from the right to the left. California's moderate Republican senator Thomas Kuchel temperately described conservatives as a "fanatical, neo-fascist, political cult, overcome by a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear.")
A decade later, Reagan mounted a more audacious intra-party challenge, falling just short of depriving incumbent Gerald Ford of the 1976 presidential nomination. Ford had more in common with Goldwater and Buckley than with Lindsay and Goodell, but Reagan still felt the affirmation of conservative principles in the wake of America's defeat in Vietnam and ten years of Great Society social engineering justified attempting an unprecedented rebuke of a sitting president. So, yes, Buckley and Reagan thought it was important for a politically and governmentally successful GOP to include moderates, restrain true believers, and marginalize extremists. But they also thought it was crucial for the Republican Party to stand for conservatism, and their concerns about comity and ideological diversity never prevented them from picking intra-party fights to vindicate their ideological commitments. Which brings us to:
Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock—your rogue's gallery of Tea Party extremists. Their zeal, and that of their supporters, carried them to victory against moderate Republicans with broad electoral appeal…and then to humiliating defeats against Democratic senatorial candidates. There's a lot to what you say…but, again, there's a lot to what you don't say. One thing you don't say is that ideological extremism is not the same thing as political ineptitude. None of the candidates you cite showed any ability to hit big-league pitching. Politicians who do a poor job of explaining themselves, maintaining message discipline, enlisting able professionals' support, and then following those professionals' advice, seldom win contested elections.
If we look at recent political history more comprehensively, it becomes clear that ideological moderation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Republicans' electoral success. If it were necessary, then Ted Cruz, Deb Fischer, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Pat Toomey should have been doomed after successfully challenging more moderate Republicans for senatorial nominations. Instead, all are in the Senate, along with Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who unseated Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010 more because of than in spite of Tea Party support. If moderation were sufficient, then Tommy Thompson should have won Wisconsin's open Senate seat in 2012, Heather Wilson should have won in New Mexico, and Scott Brown in Massachusetts. None did. Clearly, every election is a complex story, involving candidates' abilities, the vagaries of the year they run, the jurisdiction they run in, and simple luck.
Let me close with this question: if I join you in regretting Richard Mourdock's successful challenge last year to the more moderate and more electable Republican Richard Lugar in Indiana, will you join me in celebrating Marco Rubio's decision to run against Florida governor Charlie Crist for Florida's 2010 Republican senatorial nomination? At the time Rubio began his challenge, Crist's reputation was that of a moderate, big-tent Republican. Rubio was dismissed as an extremist and zealot for taking on an established, successful, centrist politician. Like John Lindsay, Crist went on to seek office as an Independent when he gave up on winning the Republican nomination, and still later decided he really was a Democrat after all.
If, as appears to be the case, Rubio is a much better politician than Mourdock, then their different attainments in statewide general elections don't tell us very much about the wisdom of more conservative Republicans challenging less conservative ones. In doing so, both of them, whatever their other differences, were following in the footsteps of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, the conservative leaders you believe should now guide conservatives as they attempt to build a Republican party after 2012 that is both principled and electorally viable. In short, I agree with you that Republicans should emulate Buckley, Reagan, and, more recently, Mitch Daniels. But we disagree about how and why we agree—that is, about what lessons, exactly, modern Republicans should learn from those practitioners of statecraft.
Kabaservice: Bill and Steve, you invoked the moderates' magic words: complexity, context, contingency! Perhaps there is common ground for moderates and conservatives after all. Really, I sympathize with you—it must be frustrating to debate the sort of person whose answers are mostly variations on "It depends." Nonetheless, that weaselly phrase is the best response to your historical-political arguments against moderation. The Republican Party's current woes can't all be solved by embracing moderation, but its long-term electoral fortunes and ability to govern depend on reaching some accommodation with moderates.
Let's be clear that the Republican Party isn't going back to the ideological diversity that characterized it as recently as the 1960s, when it included significant numbers of progressives, moderates, and Robert Taft-style pragmatic conservatives as well as Barry Goldwater-style ideological conservatives. Progressives like John Lindsay have all died out or become Democrats. There simply aren't any more genuinely liberal Republican officeholders that a rejuvenated Bill Buckley could challenge today. (As a Floridian, I can testify that Charlie Crist was not a liberal but an opportunist who cared more about his hair and suntan than any political program.) It's true that Ronald Reagan fought to give ideological conservatives permanent control of the GOP, and succeeded. The need to subordinate moderates, in his view, was so important that it was worth handing the White House to Democrats in 1976—the inevitable outcome of his primary challenge to Gerald Ford. But once the battle was won, Reagan was magnanimous towards moderates, and that's the lesson that few conservatives remember. Both Reagan and Buckley also understood how and why a critical mass of moderates will vote for some conservatives but not others.
The difference between the two sorts of conservatives actually is epitomized by Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan. Both have pleasant demeanors and make moderate-pleasing utterances about the need for a big-tent GOP, but there the similarities end. Daniels is a pragmatist with a vision of limited but active government that takes to heart the welfare of all citizens. He at least gives the impression of considering each issue on its merits. His willingness to consider tax increases demonstrated to moderates that he wasn't an ideologue straitjacketed by pledges to the likes of Grover Norquist. In fact, his flexible and situational approach to governance meant that he was able to balance the budget by raising some revenues (cigarette and sales taxes, for example) while lowering others (property taxes). Ryan is an ideologue whose budget plan would have cut taxes by $4 trillion above and beyond the Bush taxes, leading to deficits as far as the eye could see. His Ayn Randian vision of essentially eliminating government discretionary spending would be repudiated by liberals and conservatives alike if, through frightful mischance, it were ever implemented. Moderates will vote for a conservative who would put government on a diet, but not for one who would chop off its head.
I think we can all agree that conservative extremism is a double-edged sword for the GOP. Tea Party enthusiasm at the grassroots allowed some Republicans to win who otherwise would have lost, while costing the party victory in other contests. The broader problem is that Tea Partiers and other allied ideological groups are forcing the Republican Party to the right, and the further right it goes the less moderates like it. Republican candidates whose major worry is a primary challenge from the right are not going to engage in the kind of legislative horse-trading that enables functional government. They are also going to be more likely to act in ways that horrify moderates while gratifying the base, such as shutting down the government and flirting with an economically catastrophic default on the national debt. And the further right the party goes, the less success moderate GOP candidates have in the Blue States and the tougher it is for Republican presidential candidates in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The rightward trajectory of the Republican Party also blurs the line between conservatism and the lunatic fringe. The views of some (by no means all) Tea Partiers are hard to distinguish from those of the John Birch Society (which was the group to which Senator Thomas Kuchel referred). Increasing numbers of Republican politicians are picking up on these extremist views, whether by choice or necessity. Ted Cruz, for one, retailed the theory that the United Nations is plotting to ban golf courses, while other Republican politicians have indulged the notion that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim socialist. Those views don't prohibit electoral success in blood-Red States like Texas, but they backfire most everywhere else; in that sense, ideological extremism and political ineptitude do go hand in hand. And, as Buckley warned, if the "moderate, wishy-washy conservatives" come to feel that the Republican Party endorses extremist nonsense, "they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the warm embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals."
The attempt to build a Republican Party that is "both principled and electorally viable" is a tricky balance, no doubt. But the GOP won't be an electoral or governing majority again until it allows some room for moderates, regains a positive vision of government, and recovers its belief that the conservative who is furthest to the right is not necessarily the most authentic Republican.
Frum: This is a very rich discussion, and all participants are to be congratulated: William Voegeli for initiating, Steve Hayward for joining, and Geoffrey Kabaservice for the important book that inspired it all.
Kabaservice's Rule and Ruin laments a vanished strain in Republican politics. Call it moderate Republicanism, Eisenhower Republicanism, the Eastern establishment—under whatever name, it exerted great influence on national politics in the mid-20th century, but has since faded utterly away.
Voegeli and Hayward say "good riddance." But they both have to note something: the new and more thoroughly conservative Republican Party is not a healthy beast.
Some data points:
- In the six presidential elections of 1968 through 1988, the GOP averaged 52.5% of the vote. In the six presidential elections of 1992 through 2012, the GOP crossed the 50% mark only once.
- The grand Republican win of 2010 was the product of unusual circumstances: more than one third of all votes cast were cast by voters over 60, the oldest electorate in any election since 1982. That circumstance was unlikely to repeat itself in 2012, and it didn't.
- In 2012, the GOP ran on the most conservative platform since 1964. It lost the presidency by almost 5 million votes, just under 4% of the popular vote. It lost the Senate. It held a diminished majority in the House only grace to gerrymandering: Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republican candidates.
- Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. But we can say this. Republicans draw their voting strength from categories likely to shrink in the years ahead: voters born before 1952, non-Hispanic whites, voters without a college degree.
The new, immoderate Republican Party is therefore unlikely to succeed better in the near future than it has in the recent past. William Voegeli and Steve Hayward can see these facts as well as I can. Yet instead of scaling back their political ambitions in the face of an obdurate reality, they are escalating them.
Voegeli: "A key task of statesmanship in the 21st century is to mold public sentiment to incorporate this reality-based sobriety, undoing the impress that 80 years of New Deal-Great Society wishful thinking has made."
But here's an ironic truth: the Republicans of the rejected moderate era succeeded much better at undoing the excesses of the New Deal and Great Society than the immoderate Republicans of today. Between 1969 and 1983, they repealed New Deal regulation of civil aviation, trucking, shipping and railways; New Deal regulation of consumer banking and finance; and a vast swathe of controls of energy production and pricing. They stopped the construction ofpublic housing, replacing it with Section 8 vouchers. They closed Great Society programs like the Office of Economic Opportunity and Model Cities.
What have the immoderate Republicans of the Tea Party era accomplished? Bupkus.
What went wrong? Many things, but start with this: Tea Party Republicans terrified the country. In 2011, they came within inches of forcing an entirely unnecessary government default. In 2012, they campaigned on a platform of ending the Medicare guarantee for younger people (while preserving every nickel of it for the Republican-voting constituencies over age 55) in order to finance a big tax cut for the richest Americans. Through the whole period 2009-2012, senior Republicans engaged in strident rhetoric of a kind simply not used by major party figures since the demise of Burton K. Wheeler and Alben Barkley. "Death panels" and "Ground Zero mosques"; Michele Bachman, Herman Cain and Donald Trump taking turns as the Republican front-runner; speakers of state legislatures praying for the death of the president and a former speaker of the House denouncing the president as a Kenyan anti-colonial alien to the American experience—we could fill this page with examples of important Republicans currying favor with their voting base by behaving in ways that the non-base would regard as reckless, racist, or just plain repellent.
I concur with Voegeli and Hayward about the need to restrain the growth of government. A preference for leaner, more efficient government is the concern that unites all Republicans. But it is more than a coincidence that the more ferociously and apocalyptically Republicans talk about government, the less Republicans actually do about it.
Here it seems to me is the core problem: the big winners under the American fiscal system are the elderly, the rural, and the affluent—Republican constituencies. It's not easy to balance the budget or shrink government spending to any significant degree in ways that don't pinch Republican voters much harder than they pinch Democratic voters.
To escape that reality, some conservative thought leaders have constructed an alternative reality. In this alternative reality, "welfare" not Medicare is the number one social spending cost.
In this alternative reality, government employment has not fallen by more than 500,000 since 2008.
In this alternative reality, half the country is deemed not to pay any tax—because this alternative reality refuses to count payroll taxes, excise taxes, and state and local taxes as taxes.
In this alternative reality, Medicare is counted as a program that is "paid for" by its beneficiaries contributions while unemployment insurance is not—even though the latter statement would be much closer to true.
In this alternative reality, we are in imminent danger of losing our freedom—even though, as a matter of daily experience, more Americans of all races and both sexes face fewer legal constraints upon their ability to live as they please than ever before in the nation's history.
Inside this alternative reality, conservative thought leaders have substituted culture war for normal politics. They have succeeded only in isolating themselves from the country in which they live. Conservative politics and the Republican Party are on the wrong track. The particular traditions so learnedly detailed by Geoffrey Kabaservice are dead for good. But the spirit of empiricism, prudence, and inclusion that animated them is the only spirit that can revive limited-government politics for the 21st century.
Voegeli: Our discussion has focused on how Republicans can win future elections, the obvious topic for political writers concerned about a party that has recently suffered an electoral defeat. The engrossing question of how to win elections is, however, distinct from and subordinate to the question of why to contest them, the agenda and principles to be advanced through politics and governance. The position taken by Geoffrey Kabaservice and David Frum, in this forum and other writings, is that a re-moderated Republican Party would be more electorally successful than today's GOP, but also that enacting its agenda would make America more just, secure, prosperous, and free.
My position, which I believe is Steven Hayward's as well, is that the Republican Party already has a substantively admirable agenda that, if implemented, would point America in the right direction. The Paul Ryan fiscal framework, which House Republicans overwhelmingly endorsed and which Kabaservice and Frum have criticized, will suffice as a shorthand version of that agenda. I take its essential feature to be that federal spending on entitlement and discretionary domestic programs, which has grown steadily as a proportion of our growing economy for the past eight decades, should account for a declining proportion of a growing economy over coming decades. America, that is, will bend its domestic spending curve downward until it comports with revenues from a tax system no more burdensome than the historic average. An important vehicle for realizing that change will be to means-test and voucherize entitlement programs.
The Ryan fiscal framework is part of a larger political endeavor, the protection and reinvigoration of the American experiment in self-government. The conservative project, in this Tea Party view, is committed to limited government because the alternative is unlimited government—unlimited with respect to both the ends government pursues and the means by which it pursues them. Believing unlimited government to be the liberal project's rarely acknowledged essence, the Tea Party wants the GOP to confront rather than accommodate liberalism by making a fundamental critique of the New Deal paradigm and its successively more ambitious and expensive elaborations under Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.
The belief in the wisdom of the Ryan fiscal framework and Tea Party challenge to liberalism implies two things. First, and more hopefully, it suggests that better arguments and advocates could secure better electoral results than they have so far. As Hayward wrote in this forum, "Republicans have failed badly in the rhetorical requirements of contemporary politics for molding public sentiment." Turning that bad failure into impressive success might lead to better election nights than the one conservatives endured in November 2012.
But it might not. The other, more discouraging possibility is that Ryan's fiscal framework is wise policy that will never be good politics, no matter how persuasively it is explained. To win an election on that platform will require Republicans to convince the American people to scale back their demands for government services and transfer payments, lest the nation continue on a course culminating in some combination of taxes, borrowing, and inflation that will prove economically, politically, and socially debilitating. Its electoral success, in other words, depends on persuading Americans to demand and accept less from government, which may be a political Mission Impossible. For 80 years, after all, voters have been encouraged to demandand grown accustomed toreceiving more, and more, and more from government.
It is not hard, therefore, to understand the political strategy Kabaservice and Frum recommend: Republicans should fight battles they can win rather than forfeit attainable victories by waging a war against the modern activist state that won't be won because it was lost, decisively, decades ago. Moreover, the Kabaservice and Frum position holds that this irreversible victory is not just a political fact but a moral one. Even if we could supplant unlimited government with limited government we should not want to, because liberalism is right about the big question: Citizens have the right to demand, and government has the corresponding duty to provide, economic security. As Frum puts it in his recent ebook, Why Romney Lost, "The goodness of a society is judged by the way it treats the least of its people—some of whom find themselves at the bottom through no fault of their own, but others of whom may be very much at fault, and yet are still entitled by virtue of their shared citizenship to a basic minimum decency of food, shelter, and medical care."
This formulation endorses the logic of Franklin Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights. Rights to social welfare benefits are rights, giving the citizens who possess them a claim on wealth generated by others if that wealth is required for a decent standard of living. Those claims are strong enough to remain intact and decisive even when put forward by, or on behalf of, people capable of securing their own food, shelter, and medical care, but who are "very much at fault" for their lack of those benefits.
It makes sense, from that vantage point, to regret and attempt to reverse the decline of moderate Republicanism. The niche occupied by such moderates in the political ecosystem was to moderate, but never threaten, the New Deal paradigm. The moderation consisted of purging liberalism in operation of inefficiencies, corruptions, and blunders to which it was prone, but which did not detract from it being fundamentally admirable and certainly benign.
The way forward for Republicans, in this view, is to become more similar to rather than dissimilar from modern Democrats, both politically and substantively. In Why Romney Lost Frum bemoans, as he does in this forum, over-the-top Tea Party rhetoric, then notes, "Democrats talked nearly as wild in the Bush years as Republicans have talked since 2009." Unlike the GOP, Democrats acted with "shrewd restraint," however. "Groups like MoveOn.org…were sidelined lest they embarrass party strategists." As for their governing agenda, "The Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s had the courage and the honesty to identify which of their policies had died, and then ruthlessly to discard the carcasses."
These assertions, for which Why Romney Lost provides no particular instances, are debatable at best and counter-factual journalism at worst. To cite one complicating datum, Democrats chose to sideline MoveOn.org by embracing the Michael Moore documentary it was publicizing during the 2004 presidential campaign, Fahrenheit 911. Democrats manifested their disdain for this project by turning out Tom Daschle, then leader of the Senate Democrats; Terry McAuliffe, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee; and senators Tom Harkin and Barbara Boxer to attend the Washington, D.C. premier. All spoke glowingly about the propaganda film to reporters.
Perhaps Frum has in mind Democrats' effort, after the bitter defeat of 2004, to recruit culturally conservative candidates to run for Congress in reddish states and districts. Many of them won in 2006 and 2008…and then lost in 2010. Gerrymandering can't explain that reversal, since congressional districts had the same boundaries in 2010 as they had in 2004, '06, and '08. A more plausible explanation for these Blue Dog Democrats' vulnerability was that they were no more forthcoming than Frum about the dead policies the Pelosi Democrats had courageously and honestly identified, and then ruthlessly discarded.
"[E]very defeated party," according to Why Romney Lost, "must undergo some kind of rendezvous with the question ‘What do we stand for?' For Republicans, the Tea Party was the beginning of the rendezvous. It must not, however, be the finale. It cannot be the finale."
But what is the finale, then? How is it superior to the Tea Party understanding of what Republicans stand for? And on what basis do Republicans differentiate themselves from Democrats after they embrace it? The question of what Republican moderates stand for is no clearer today than it was during their mid-20th century heyday, or their long subsequent decline.
Frum: William Voegeli ends his most recent entry in this discussion with this taunt: "The question of what Republican moderates stand for is no clearer today than it was during their mid-20th century heyday, or their long subsequent decline."
It's in the nature of things that people of more extreme views will accuse the less extreme of lacking principles. That was the charge that the militant students of the SDS threw at their liberal professors in the 1960s, and it's the charge that Tea Party conservatives reprise today.
Yet from my point of view, Tea Party conservatism is not defined by its super-abundance of principle. What, after all, were Sarah Palin'sprinciples? No, the militant conservatism ascendant today is defined by these five very different qualities:
1) Affect. Tea Party conservatism values confrontation as an end in itself. It doesn't much care whether the confrontation is likely to yield successful results. It doesn't much bother to develop plans to bring confrontations to successful conclusions. The more often it loses (Obamacare, fiscal cliff, debt ceiling), the more determined it becomes to apply the same doomed tactics one more time. It would rather lose everything than negotiate something. Affect is all; results, nothing.
2) "Epistemic closure." That phrase is maybe too highfalutin, but it's too famous to dispense with. Whether it's the post-truth journalism of the pranksters at Breitbart.com or the nearly unanimous insistence of right-leaning economists during the steepest deflation of the 1930s that the real danger was inflation, Tea Party conservatism has a serious difficulty acknowledging facts and realities.
3) Apocalyptic despair. The day after the November 2012 vote, Rush Limbaugh explained the result to his large audience: "We've lost our country." These words expressed something more than the usual hard feelings after an election defeat. The Tea Party since its inception has been gripped by the fear that the Republic and the Constitution have arrived at a "tipping point" (to use Paul Ryan's phrase) after which it's all one steep hopeless tumble to socialist tyranny.
4) Attachment to the carcasses of dead policies. More than a century ago, the Marquess of Salisbury described this habit as the "commonest error in politics," and never has it been more common than now. With one exception (which I'll get to in the next paragraph) the policy repertoire of the Tea Party contains not a single idea less than 30 years old. Some of those ideas were relevant once, but have little application to contemporary conditions: e.g., cuts in marginal tax rates to spur productivity growth. Some of those ideas were always bad: the balanced budget amendment; the gold standard. None of them offer any service at all to a country mired in the worst employment crisis in 80 years.
5) Generational self-interest. As mentioned, post-2008 hard-right conservatives did rally around one new idea: the Ryan plan praised above by William Voegeli. And what was the Ryan plan? Simply this: a plan to load almost all the burden of fiscal adjustment onto Americans under age 55, while largely exempting Americans over age 55. Even beyond the Ryan plan, the Tea Party championed causes dear to the hearts of retirees and near-retirees. Remember, the issue that launched the Tea Party in the summer of 2009 was…opposition to Medicare cuts for current beneficiaries. That's a strange rallying cry for a purportedly limited government movement. Once you begin to think of the Tea Party as a vehicle for advancing the economic interests of the old against the young, though, a lot of otherwise mysterious behaviors suddenly begin to make sense.
Voegeli charges that Geoffrey Kabaservice and I propose only that Republicans dwindle into Democrats-lite.
The niche occupied by such moderates in the political ecosystem was to moderate, but never threaten, the New Deal paradigm. The moderation consisted of purging liberalism in operation of inefficiencies, corruptions, and blunders to which it was prone, but which did not detract from it being fundamentally admirable and certainly benign.The way forward for Republicans, in this view, is to become more similar to rather than dissimilar from modern Democrats, both politically and substantively.
I'd say this is bad political science and worse history. It would be every bit as plausible to say that Democrats have dwindled into Republicans-lite: championing price competition against New Deal style price regulation; sympathetic to business concerns; skeptical of unions. "Fundamentally admirable and certainly benign" is the way most Democrats nowadays think of free markets. There's not a Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan among them.
But that is a lesser point. The more important point is: Times change. Conditions change. Problems change. Nobody—not Democrats, not Republicans—thinks we should continue to regulate the interest rate paid on checking accounts, as we did from 1933 until 1986. Nobody—not Republicans, not Democrats—thinks that the unemployed should be left to fend for themselves, as was the case in most states before 1935. Within the context of our present politics—
a politics in which market-minded people have won, not lost, most of the major arguments since 1975 – we need a party of the center-right that can advocate private initiative, reasonable taxation, and sustainable government in ways that make sense to contemporary voters: without despair, without rage, without resentment, and without reliance on pseudo-facts and pretend information. We need a center-right that does not blame the voters for its own mistakes of head and heart. We need a center-right that is culturally modern, environmentally responsible, and economically inclusive. There's the "finale" we should be seeking after the broken crockery from the Tea Party tantrum is cleared away.
Voegeli: In the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections, conservatives need a Republican Party that appeals to at least one out of every ten Obama voters. I don’t know how to make that happen, and have yet to come across anyone else’s can’t-miss proposal. I am pretty sure, though, that what we don’t need is a Republican Party where President Obama himself would feel right at home.
That GOP would gain power only by promising to enact all the main planks of the Democratic platform, just less expensively, inefficiently, and corruptly than Democrats do. Few swing voters are going to choose a party that accepts the Democratic worldview reluctantly and qualifiedly as long as there’s a Democratic Party committed to it unreservedly. As I contended previously in this discussion, Republican course corrections make electoral sense only if they effect a net increase in the number of GOP voters. If, on the other hand, they antagonize and demoralize so much of the Republican base that the newly enlisted voters are outnumbered by registered Republicans who stop voting (and donating and volunteering), it will become imperative to attract more swing voters by further blurring differences with Democrats, and the party will find itself in a death spiral.
I raise the question because Messrs. Kabaservice and Frum have made it—here and elsewhere—easier to understand what they don’t like about today’s Republicans than what they don’t like about the Democrats. Kabaservice wrote earlier in this forum that “Democrats opposed (and still oppose) Eisenhower-style moderate fiscal conservatism,” which appears to be the basis on which he keeps some distance from that party. Frum seeks a center-right party that advocates “private initiative, reasonable taxation, and sustainable government”—worthy goals all, even when invoked in such general terms. At the same time, however, he believes we already have a center-left party, the Democrats, in favor of price competition, opposed to “New Deal style price regulation; sympathetic to business concerns; skeptical of unions.”
Accept, for the sake of the argument, the accuracy of Frum’s characterization of the modern Democratic Party. In what sense, if any, does it reject private initiative, reasonable taxation, and sustainable government? And even if it does, could it not embrace them by modifying itself only slightly? This is not a taunt, but a sincere question: what’s keeping Frum out of the chastened, sober, Democratic Party he respects, and inside the nihilistic, unhinged Republican one he scorns?
For all that, Frum does offer useful political advice for improving Republicans’ electoral prospects. It is certain that the next Republican president, if there is one, will adhere to the first Republican president’s homespun adage about a drop of honey catching more flies than a gallon of gall. Politics is hard enough without devising ways to make it even harder, so conservatives should avoid giving gratuitous offense by denigrating the motives or capacities of people they disagree with. As a rule, Tea Party Republicans can improve their comportment by resolving never to speak to or about other Republicans, Independents, or Democrats the way David Frum speaks to and about Tea Party Republicans.
I find it harder to follow or accept Frum’s critique of the modern GOP’s substantive agenda. Let me restate the case for Paul Ryan’s fiscal framework, embraced by both the House Republicans and the Romney campaign, in light of Frum’s observations, as well as those offered by Ross Douthat and Ezra Klein.
The GOP is the party of small government. The Democrats are the party of big, or at least indefinitely bigger, government. How small? How big? While metaphysicians ponder, Ryan’s approach suggests an Occam’s Razor resolution: Republicans favor cutting the government down to the size consistent with what Democrats have promised to do and not do about taxes. “Reasonable” taxation and “sustainable” government could mean just about anything, but some correspondence between the two is strongly implied. It’s hard to imagine, in other words, that any level of taxation could be reasonable if it renders government’s operations unsustainable.
Barack Obama once seemed to grasp this fundamental point, at least at a high level of abstraction. He proclaimed to Iowa Democrats in 2007 that “telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do.” By 2008, however, Obama was telling voters something that sounded much more like what they wanted than what they needed to hear. Specifically, candidate Obama pledged, “No family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”
The problem with exempting 97% of American households from any federal tax increase is that it makes it impossible to pay for the expensive obligations that were baked in the cake when Obama took office in 2009, and the expensive obligations that government has taken on since then—Obamacare chief among them. This point was noted during Obama’s first term by observers not usually considered shills for the Tea Party. “It has become clear,” Jonathan Chait wrote in 2011, “that Obama’s pledge not to raise taxes at all on anybody earning less than $250,000 a year is no longer compatible with even the minimal demands of government over the next decade.” Last year Chait’s successor at the New Republic, Timothy Noah, warned that unless Obama abandons his pledge never to raise taxes on the middle class, “he can forget about achieving meaningful deficit reduction.”
After winning reelection in 2012, the term-limited president had what would appear to have been the opportunity of a lifetime to tell people what they needed to hear instead of what they wanted to hear. With the fiscal cliff deal, however, he responded by making his reckless campaign promise of 2008 even more reckless, agreeing to exempt not 97% of Americans from federal tax increases but more than 99%. The Ryan framework responds to these political facts by describing in some detail a welfare state that fits inside the budgetary perimeter Democrats have embraced and used to secure political victories. If Democrats, or Democratic sympathizers, find that fiscal future reprehensible, they should tell voters what they need to hear about the necessity for most Americans to pay much higher taxes, which is probably not what they want to hear. The alternative to this framework, a division of labor where Democrats spend America into a corner and Republicans tax them out, strikes me as being bad politics for the GOP, and bad governance for America.