Books discussed in this essay:
It's Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein;
The Death of Conservatism: A Movement and Its Consequences, by Sam Tanenhaus;
and Dead Right, by David Frum.
The Republican party has gone insane. Not whacky-but-basically-harmless, Uncle Joe Biden insane. We're talking remorseless-sociopath insane.
Analysts on the Left say so. The New Republic's Noam Scheiber charges that the GOP "has completely lost its marbles, having turned into a collection of anti-tax jihadis bent on the upward redistribution of wealth." His colleague John Judis agrees. Republicans have "transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority." According to the New Yorker's George Packer, the "extremism of the Republican Party," intensified by the "rabid reaction to its 2008 defeat and Obama's Presidency," is now "destroying American politics."
Analysts in the center say so, too. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute (AEI), respectively, contend that today's GOP is "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." In their new book detailing this indictment, It's Even Worse than It Looks, they ascribe governmental dysfunction to "asymmetric polarization," thereby placing less than the entirety of the blame—but much more than half—on Republicans. "While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post."
Another new book, Rule and Ruin by historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, comes to equally bleak conclusions about, as its subtitle states, The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Kabaservice writes, "The conversion of one of America's two major parties into an ideological vehicle, against the preferences of many of the party's own voters, is a phenomenon without precedent in American history." In its wake, today's Republicans show "little interest in appealing to moderates, repudiating extremism, reaching out to new constituencies, or upholding the party's legacy of civil rights and civil liberties."
Even Republicans, including some more or less erstwhile ones, declare the GOP certifiable. In 2011 Mike Lofgren quit Capitol Hill after 28 years as a Republican congressional staff member. In a subsequent primal-scream essay for the leftist website Truthout he argued that Republicans' "extraordinarily vitriolic hatred of President Obama" is rendering them "less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and…more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe." Lofgren elaborated this thesis in a book, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Reading it is like watching a Michael Moore documentary, except there's less nuance and detachment.
Journalist David Frum, whose résumé includes long stints, now concluded, at such conservative citadels as National Review and AEI, is nearly as anguished as Lofgren. A "reckless, irresponsible radicalism…has overtaken the Republican party," he wrote on his blog for the Daily Beast earlier this year. The GOP "is getting the big questions disastrously wrong," George W. Bush's former speechwriter informed the readers of New York magazine in 2011. "The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society."
Then and Now
Can a diagnosis affirmed by so many second opinions, from so many points on the political spectrum, be mistaken? Before answering, we need to understand the pathology these critics believe is afflicting the GOP. A useful starting point is the contention that Republicans used to be free from the disorders that beset their party today, or at least had their most dangerous manifestations under control. The purported difference between then and now is the decline and fall of the moderate Republicans, who had the power to give the party's presidential nomination to pragmatic centrists like Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1940s and '50s. Moderate Republicans have been challenged, defeated, and ultimately driven to political extinction over the past half-century by conservatives eager to discard political comity and governmental efficacy in the pursuit of ideological purity. In 2009 after one of the few remaining moderates, the late Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, quit the GOP to caucus with Democrats, thereby avoiding an uphill primary fight against a conservative challenger, Frum wrote, "[U]ntil and unless there is an honored place made in the Republican party for people who think like Arlen Specter, we will remain a minority party."
Kabaservice's book is a thorough, scrupulous account of moderate Republicanism's decline, reacquainting us with important politicians the nation has forgotten, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the 1960 GOP vice-presidential nominee, and William Steiger, the Wisconsin congressman who was crucial to translating supply-side theories and the tax revolt of the late 1970s into federal tax cuts. For the most part Kabaservice's portraits are admiring and, given the arc of political history since 1960, elegiac. Not everyone comes off well, however. To this day, 33 years after Nelson Rockefeller's death, GOP moderates are still called "Rockefeller Republicans." Yet Kabaservice shows that Rockefeller's political career was the worst thing that ever happened to moderate Republicanism, since the New York governor who became Gerald Ford's vice president believed: 1) achieving his personal ambition to be president was vital to the republic's future; 2) more spending would solve any problem, political or governmental; and 3) not much else. As for John Lindsay, the New York City congressman and mayor, Kabaservice reinforces biographer Vincent Cannato's judgment: the dashing politician heralded in the 1960s as the Republican future consistently showed too much profile and too little wattage.
Despite meticulously analyzing the trees, Kabaservice never delineates the boundaries or distinguishing features of the forest. We finish Rule and Ruin knowing a great deal about moderate Republicans, yet are left with no sure sense of the qualities that differentiate moderation from conservatism and liberalism. In the end, Kabaservice's portrait of Republican moderates reinforces the judgment, made by Michael Barone in Our Country (1990), that their differences with Democrats were primarily sociological rather than political. The moderates who controlled the GOP before 1964 accepted that America would never again see government's domestic powers confined within the limits that obtained before the Great Depression, or its international role to the one considered the norm before Pearl Harbor. But to entrust these new governmental responsibilities to the party that was a congenial home for Ku Klux Klan members in the South and corrupt machine bosses in the North was, in their view, unthinkable. Barone records Thomas Dewey arguing in the 1940s that "the Republican party is the best instrument for bringing sound government into the hands of competent men," who would "prove that democracy can maintain itself as master of its own destiny, feed its hungry, house its homeless, and provide work for its idle without reliance on political racketeers." Once Jim Crow and patronage-based urban machines had disappeared, the strongest rationale for moderates to continue to distinguish themselves from the Democrats did, too. Several politicians who started out as moderate Republicans, including former Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, switched parties in the 1970s. Kabaservice reports that three fourths of the people who still cared enough by 2002 to attend the 40th anniversary reunion of the Ripon Society, moderate Republicanism's most important organization, described themselves in an informal poll as Democrats or independents.
As for moderates' substantive commitments, Kabaservice writes that they include standing up for "good government," especially "fiscal responsibility" and "effectiveness and efficiency." Moderates believe in "disinterested consideration of the issues," working "with Democrats to solve problems," and maintaining "a level of balance and civility in politics." Finally, "because they were not beholden to the Democrats' coalition of special-interest constituencies, [moderates] could take a broader and longer-term viewpoint and uphold values such as civil liberties and meritocracy."
It's impossible to argue with any of those ideals. No movement or journal exists to promote irresponsible and inefficient government, of course, or biased and boorish politics. But that's the problem. If the moderate agenda contains no item that any decent and reasonable person could oppose, then it also contains no principle that any American could fight for as though the fate of the republic depended on the outcome. Rule and Ruin never assails moderate Republicans, but unintentionally makes clear that their slight, bromidic raison d'être is not one to which the author failed to do justice, but one his subjects failed to think through rigorously. There was never enough there there for moderate Republicanism's demise to be a regrettable loss or an important story, as opposed to a merely (albeit thoroughly) interesting one.
Part of the difficulty in gauging the depths of the cause's shallows is that "moderation" is ordinarily understood to describe an approach to political conduct rather than a governing program. The commitment to moderation manifests itself in a political tone purged of rancor and invective. Moderates seek, wherever possible, to be bi- or post- or trans-partisan rather than narrowly and reflexively partisan. Characterized as such, moderation does not preclude polite, earnest extremism. It is impossible, however, to envision the converse, a bellicose, unyielding centrism.
It would be a "serious mistake," Kabaservice writes, "to equate moderation with mere difference-splitting or compromise for its own sake." But the moderates he praises must have missed that memo. Arthur Larson, for example, was one of President Eisenhower's speechwriters and the chief advocate of "modern Republicanism." This political orientation was, in Kabaservice's words, "as much a temperament as an ideology, espousing balance, reasonableness, prudence, and common sense." In A Republican Looks at His Party (1956), Larson advised, "[I]n politics—as in chess—the man who holds the center holds a position of almost unbeatable strength."
In the absence of a satisfactory account of its essential principles, however, centrism stands revealed as an "-ism" without an -ism, the chief reason it ultimately became a -wasm. Lacking a telos, centrism's logical fate is to collapse into split-the-difference-ism, rendering it not only incoherent in theory but counter-productive in practice. That is, insofar as centrism is a political force that matters, it ends up inciting rather than restraining extremists. If centrists can be relied upon to embrace the middle position between two extremes, the partisans of each extreme have every incentive to make their positions more extreme, not less, before the centrists calibrate and then endorse the half-a-loaf resolution. For all their hopes and exertions, moderates not only do not moderate the political process and policy outcomes, but actually intensify and polarize fights over the nation's future course.
It's important to bear this defect in mind when evaluating the accusations that the 21st-century GOP has impaired itself and the republic by repudiating its moderate heritage. That heritage turns out to be dubious in ways those who invoke it don't realize or admit. On the basis of that mistake, the critics of today's Republicans go on to make an additional one: using the alleged moderation of yesterday's Republicans to castigate the alleged extremism of today's. Columnist E.J. Dionne, for example, writes, "Ronald Reagan never tried to dismantle the New Deal and acknowledged…the need for tax increases." Bruce Bartlett, who worked in the Reagan Administration, agrees. "It is indisputable that Reagan was vastly more moderate, at least in terms of how he actually governed, than today's GOP," Bartlett wrote earlier this year. Reagan "was not a radical who made extravagant claims or sought to destroy government, as most Republicans appear willing to do today. He believed in conservative governance and getting things done, and if bending on principle was necessary, then so be it."
Exhibit A, submitted by every prosecutor of today's extreme Republicans, is the letter President Eisenhower wrote in 1954 to his brother Edgar, who was a Tea Party Republican 60 years before there was a Tea Party: "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," but, "[t]heir number is negligible and they are stupid." It "hardly seems conceivable," laments Mike Lofgren, that any 21st-century Republican could write such words, given the "broad and ever-widening gulf between the traditional Republicanism of an Eisenhower and the quasi-totalitarian cult" the party has become. Citing that Eisenhower quote and a few others, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, noted observer of all things conservative, concluded, "The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your father's and your grandfather's Republican Party now being way to the left of today's leftiest liberals."
To use the social programs Eisenhower sustained or the tax increases Reagan accepted to condemn today's Republicans, however, obliterates any distinction between those politicians' prudential accommodations and their principled convictions. The full, rarely quoted context of Eisenhower's letter makes clear the error of doing so. "I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions," Ike wrote.
I oppose this—in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything—even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon "moderation" in government. [Emphasis in the original.]
Eisenhower's letter argued privately what the first Republican president had stated publicly:
In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
Abraham Lincoln's carefully chosen word "molds" suggests that this paramount duty of democratic statesmanship is quite different from disdaining public sentiment and working to render it governmentally inconsequential, the ambition of the incipient tyrant. It is also the road not taken by the self-marginalizing activist content merely to denounce public sentiment when he believes it's mistaken, preferring the satisfactions of moral purity to the messier, murkier work of making a difference. Molding public sentiment is, finally, different from simple acquiescence, letting it take whatever shape it will. This firm but shrewd defiance is especially important when the public is prepared to embrace a wicked or destructive course. Americans in the 1850s, it appeared to Lincoln, were moving toward accepting the indefinite expansion and permanent existence of slavery, a prospect he believed would be a practical and moral catastrophe.
Prudence, Rightly Understood
The democratic statesman doesn't take pains to mold public sentiment simply because he prefers his way to the inertial path the citizenry is following on its own. Rather, he intervenes in the political process when convinced that public sentiment is settling on a course that will make it impossible to sustain, or admire, the republic. The statesman seeks to avert that disaster by working to reverse the ongoing deformation of public sentiment, rendering it, once more, fundamentally congruent with the better—more patriotic and virtuous—angels of our nature. Hectoring or scolding his countrymen is the best way to guarantee they won't pay attention. Changing their thinking requires a discerning, subtle understanding of that thinking—of why the public wants what it wants, and of how it may be induced to stop wanting it in favor of something more conducive to the republic's health. Acting on the basis of that understanding can resemble pandering or inconsistency while, in fact, being their opposite. As Winston Churchill wrote:
A Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship of state on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other…. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose. A Statesman should always try to do what he believes is best in the long view for his country, and he should not be dissuaded from so acting by having to divorce himself from a great body of doctrine to which he formerly sincerely adhered.
Moderate Republicanism failed because it not only lacked but eschewed any encompassing view about what was best for the country in the long run. The moderate "cause" valorized prudence, in the sense of operating cautiously and incrementally within the reigning consensus while never seeking to mold it into something better. That understanding required repudiating prudence as Aristotle, Lincoln, and Churchill understood the concept: the constant struggle to vindicate fundamental principles and further crucial objectives by taking the full measure of complex, transient political realties in ways that made beneficial possibilities more likely and dangerous ones less so. Moderates' prudence, in other words, was entirely tactical but resolutely anti-strategic. In politics as in warfare, however, tactics are never better than the strategy they further, the ultimate goals to which the intermediate ones lead. Eisenhower, who achieved historic successes in both war and peace, called upon his West Point training to instruct his brother, an attorney, that "in all governmental fields of action a combination of purpose, procedure and objectives must be considered if you are to get a true evaluation of the relative merits."
Wisconsin vs. Connecticut
Modern liberals are explicitly committed to the ongoing effacement of limited government by unlimited government, while centrists favor that project implicitly. It makes perfect sense that both are nostalgic for the Republicans of earlier decades who, either as a result of strategic calculations or the moderate aversion to having a strategy, confined their ambitions to slowing down the New Deal-Great Society train, never seeking to stop, reroute, or reverse it. Such Republicans knew their place as well as they knew that history's direction is always towards more redistributive, autonomous, and interventionist government. If or to the extent they were conservatives, those Republicans embraced an utterly domesticated conservatism that prepared them, in Jonah Goldberg's words, to "gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward ‘progress.'"
Those who were in any respect more bumptious were guilty of "revanchism." New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus devoted a book, The Death of Conservatism (2009), to denouncing such retrogression as the American Right's gravest temptation and sin. Conservative "counterrevolutionaries," Tanenhaus argues, are "committed to…the restoration of America's pre-welfare state ancien regime." He allows that Great Society liberals, and the "New Politics" Hotspurs who condemned the Great Society for being merely ameliorative where radicalism was required, "unwittingly squeezed themselves into the stereotypes conservatives had invented." But that was then. Any justification for what Mitt Romney might call a severe conservatism disappeared "a generation ago" when liberals reclaimed "the status of disinterested statesmen" by renouncing "the programmatic ‘New Politics' of the left and embracing instead a broad majoritarianism." Though the particulars of this renunciation are hazy, reciprocating it is imperative. "Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition." The most honorable part of that tradition was, apparently, its docility.
The fight over the law passed in 2011 by Wisconsin's Republican state legislators and Governor Scott Walker, limiting the power of labor unions representing government employees, reveals the meaning of this attack on revanchism. The Wisconsin GOP's approach, according to Dionne, was "the most glaring example of [conservatives'] new and genuinely alarming approach to politics," which "seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power." The Republicans "sought to undermine one of the Democratic Party's main sources of organization." That effort went way beyond "bargaining hard with the unions and demanding more reasonable pension agreements," to the unacceptably maximalist goal of "trying to undercut the labor movement altogether." The sort of Republicans who sought and sometimes wielded power in Wisconsin before the 2010 elections had been much…nicer. "They enacted conservative policies without turning the state upside down. They sought to win over their opponents rather than to inhibit their capacity to oppose." Those extraordinary provocations rendered the extraordinary response of recalling Walker 17 months into his elected term "both justified and necessary," according to Dionne.
The National Journal's Ronald Brownstein is another critic of the Wisconsin law. Primarily a political reporter rather than an opinion columnist, Brownstein carries forward the late David Broder's legacy of earnestly encouraging reasonable people to leave ideology aside in favor of pragmatically meeting governmental challenges by negotiating in good faith and the spirit of compromise. On that basis Brownstein denounced Governor Walker and Republican legislators for responding to Wisconsin's fiscal problems with "a sharply ideological plan that targeted its pain almost entirely at Democratic constituencies." Walker "refused to balance the cuts for union members" with "higher tax contributions from the affluent or corporations," and "to negotiate givebacks directly with the public-employee unions (which they had signaled they would accept)" in favor of stripping "their rights to collectively bargain on those issues altogether." Walker's mistake, Brownstein argued, was to believe that in a polarized era "the only way to achieve effective change is to ruthlessly unify your own party, concede nothing to the other party (or its constituencies), and bulldoze forward as long as you can hold support from 50-plus-1 percent of the voters." Brownstein compared Walker unfavorably to Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, who signed a budget in 2011 that combined spending reductions and union concessions with tax increases, thereby "demanding contributions from all segments of society" to close "an equally daunting deficit without remotely as much turmoil."
Although it is true that Malloy's budget plan elicited a fraction of the upheaval Walker's did, Brownstein didn't consider the possibility that this disparity shows only that Connecticut Republicans, who neither besieged the capitol nor sent their legislators out of state to prevent a quorum, have better civic manners than Wisconsin Democrats. Nor did he allow that Walker may have addressed a fundamental problem—public employee unions' well-established pattern of using their power to deliver shoddy services at unaffordable costs—with a fundamental solution, while Malloy's more timid response solved today's problems at the price of leaving in place the structural predicates guaranteeing worse ones tomorrow. Finally, Brownstein failed to mention that Malloy's plan was bipartisan only in the sense that all Republicans and some Democrats in the state legislature voted against it.
Engaging in politics with liberals, it appears, closely resembles conducting arms control talks with the Soviet Union. In both cases one confronts adversaries who insist that what's theirs is theirs and what's yours is negotiable. Scott Walker sought to revise a legal regime that had been in existence barely more than 50 years, not, as Dionne implies, settled by the battle of Agincourt. No matter. Once history's ratchet has clicked in the direction of progress, however recently, that step is irrevocable and all measures intended to reverse it, illegitimate. All such progressive changes immediately become part of "the rules," and the rules must not be altered—even, perhaps especially, by conservatives who "use incumbency." Journalist Mickey Kaus helpfully translated Dionne's formulation from the foreboding into the merely descriptive: "‘Incumbency' in this case means a law was passed by a democratically elected legislature (incumbents all) and signed by a democratically elected incumbent governor."
Breaking the Rules
When, occasionally, history regresses in the direction of a less munificent, more constrained government, those provisional changes never become part of the rules and should always be altered at the earliest opportunity. The 1996 welfare reform law, enacted by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president, was understood at the time to have brought to a close the decades when welfare had become an entitlement, a way of life rather than a second chance, in President Bill Clinton's phrase. President Obama's Department of Health and Human Services, however, has used its powers of incumbency to issue new regulations that weaken the law's requirements that welfare recipients work or prepare to work in order to remain eligible for benefits. If such changes stand, second chances will turn into third, fourth, and twelfth ones, and welfare will once more become a way of life. By the same token, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 culminated a series of revisions that saw a Republican president and legislators of both parties reduce the highest income tax rate from 70% to 28%. The principle that the government should never again lay claim to the majority of a legally acquired dollar also appeared to be a settled question. Liberal revanchists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Timothy Noah, however, are eagerly laying the intellectual groundwork, which will become the political foundation, for raising income tax rates back to 70% and beyond.
Taxes are indeed the central front of today's political wars. In the eyes of the GOP's detractors, categorical opposition to tax increases is the most flagrant, pernicious aspect of modern Republican extremism. The Ronald Reagan who in 1982 signed "the largest peacetime tax increase in American history," according to Bruce Bartlett, would be considered a heretic by today's Republicans. The moment that crystallized this tax-phobic fiscal irresponsibility, according to many critics, came in August 2011 at one of the GOP presidential debates. When the moderator asked about a hypothetical federal budget deal that cut $10 in spending for every $1 of tax increases, all eight candidates—from Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and libertarian Ron Paul to Jon Huntsman, the supposed moderate in the field—raised their hands to reject it. There's no forgiving that refusal to stand up to the "extremist base" of a party that has become, in the words of Time's Joe Klein, "anachronistic, hateful and foolish." When one of the 10-to-1 deal rejecters, Mitt Romney, selected Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued in the New Republic that moderation and even "the long-term viability of the Republican Party" were in peril. "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." Because Ryan's budget plans reject all tax hikes, he "sides with those for whom fiscal policy is a matter of theology rather than economics."
Such harsh critics treat the possibility that Tea Party-influenced Republicans are taking defensible political measures to achieve legitimate policy goals as self-evidently false. It's not. The rise of the Tea Party, and its swift incorporation into the GOP, can best be understood as a response to a dilemma that presented itself to conservatives 20 years ago. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the federal government shutdowns of 1995 and '96, it appeared that the fight against the Evil Empire was Mission Accomplished while the fight to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment was Mission Impossible. Take away the two goals that had defined the conservative movement since the first issue of National Review, and it was unclear what conservatives were supposed to do, and what conservatism was supposed to be about. The innovations proposed to fill this lacuna included national greatness conservatism, compassionate conservatism, and George W. Bush's call after 9/11 to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." These missions proved to be, respectively: vague and pointless; a project of social reinvigoration to which political measures could make no more than a marginal contribution; and an extravagant ambition far exceeding America's capacity and her citizens' patience.
Loyal Opposition No More
These non-solutions only served to demonstrate the severity of conservatism's problem. MoveOn.org had pushed the Democratic Party to the left after the start of the war in Iraq, which 58% of Senate Democrats voted to authorize. The Tea Party, symmetrically, emerged in 2009 to mobilize the Republican wing of the Republican Party, rejecting de factoassent to the government's eternal growth. Its message was that the congressional Republicans of 1995 had overestimated the ease with which the federal government could be constrained, but subsequently over-interpreted their political defeat during the government shutdowns. In 2005 majority leader Tom DeLay stated that after a decade of GOP House majorities, "nobody has been able to come up with any" further spending cuts, proof that "we've pared [spending] down pretty good." Federal outlays, adjusted for inflation and population growth, were 20% larger in 2005 than in 1995. Of that increase, defense spending added after 9/11 accounted for a bit less than a third. Little wonder that a demoralized Republican base stayed home in droves for the 2006 and 2008 elections.
The displacement of moderate Republicans by Tea Party Republicans has meant the demise of the liberal project's loyal opposition, one that was much better at loyalty than at opposition. The rules that, once altered, must never be changed back include not only the unassailable prerogatives of public employee unions but the never-ending augmentation of the government's endeavors, powers, and resources. Well-behaved Republicans once shared Democrats' conviction that American politics was like an airport's moving walkway, where one can stand still or even take the occasional step backward while nevertheless moving constantly forward. There is much that progressives can't or won't explain about what the progress they exist to midwife consists of, but one thing they do make clear is that progress never means having the government do or spend less than it has in the past. The GOP was a sane, reasonable party when it understood this, too, and consented to the walkway's perpetual advance. Its leaders were content to grouse and give speeches before, in Newt Gingrich's phrase, acting as tax collectors for the welfare state. Gingrich's predecessor as leader of the House Republicans, Robert Michel of Illinois, spent 38 years in Congress, every day of which was in the minority. It's no surprise that moderates like Michel internalized that experience, and came to view politics as the enterprise of going along with the expansion of government in order to get along with the winning of token concessions.
Heightening the Contradictions
Was Ronald Reagan, who signed tax increases in Sacramento and Washington, one of those Big Government enablers? Author Michael Lind recently found it necessary to remind fellow liberals who had grown fond of using Reagan to bash today's extremist anti-tax Republicans not to lose sight of the fact that Reagan really was a Reaganite. But not enough of one, insisted David Frum in the days when he was a less conflicted conservative. In Dead Right (1994) Frum argued the reason for the conservative failures of the 1980s was the "doctrine…that the welfare state should be allowed to hurtle forward whenever the political cost of halting it was likely to be inconvenient in the shortest of short runs." Those failures were a movement's, but also its president's, who was "always vulnerable" to a hard-luck story, the reason Reagan "declared so much of the federal budget off limits to budget cutters so early in his administration." Frum warned, "Federal spending will keep on growing…until a president is elected who does not hear every pathetic anecdote as proof" of the need for more redistribution, "which is why conservatives need to find themselves the meanest guy they can."
Steven Hayward, not a conflicted conservative, also criticized Reagan for being irresolute and unfocused in his efforts to restore limited government. Hayward's two-volume The Age of Reagan (2001, 2009) makes clear, however, that the Gipper's acquiescence to tax increases cannot be understood as a simple capitulation to the growth of government. When Congress caught tax cut fever in 1981 it wound up sending Reagan a bill with many more reductions than the simple lowering of all income tax rates he had originally proposed. The president did not reject this gift horse, but spent the next seven years negotiating with Congress from a position of strength, able to give back, when political circumstances dictated, portions of what he had never asked for. Hayward stresses that Reagan's flexibility on taxes never extended to rescinding or postponing the scheduled decrease in income tax rates he had won, even though most Democrats and some Republicans pressured him to do so. (Another big change that he secured in 1981, indexing tax brackets to inflation, thereby preventing "bracket creep" from imposing tax increases no legislator ever had to vote for, was also off the table.) Playing with the house money provided by other tax cuts made it easier to be obstinate.
Reagan's commitment to constraining government remained the chief consideration, however. The two-party division of labor worked out in the half-century prior to Reagan's presidency was that the dominant Democrats would insist existing social welfare programs were inviolable and new ones crucial, while fiscally responsible Republicans would responsibly help fund, and thereby facilitate, the Democratic agenda. The elections of 1980, 1994, and 2010 were a succession of waves that left the GOP increasingly committed to heightening rather than resolving the contradictions in the liberal project. The chief contradiction is that Americans are more favorably disposed to Big Government than to Big Taxes, and Democrats have encouraged them to believe in the possibility of having the former without the latter. Mike Lofgren is disgusted that Democrats even consent to use the word "entitlements" when discussing Social Security and Medicare—they should always be considered "earned benefits" because "we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them." Those benefits, however, are worth far more than the taxes that supposedly earned them. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute has calculated that if the payroll taxes of a couple born in 1945, both of whom work and receive the average wage, had been placed in an account that earned the inflation rate plus 2%, the value of the account when they turn 65 in 2010 would have been $722,000. On average, however, they will receive $966,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits, a 34% premium. For a one-earner couple born the same year, receiving the average wage, the value of the tax account would be $361,000 in 2010 and the average value of the benefits $854,000, a 137% windfall.
Such arrangements are equitable and sustainable only if a wealth augmentation machine magically appears in the basement of the Health and Human Services building to turn ten-dollar bills into twenties. Democrats have always been good at declaring this program urgent or that one vital. Let them also excel, Republicans have come to say, at persuading Americans they are severely under-taxed. If the Democrats' agenda is as essential as they claim, and its benefits as palpable, it should be easy to convince Americans to pay for it. If not, then Americans need, at long last, to treat the amount they want to pay in taxes and the level of government programs they desire as two ways of asking the identical question. Eisenhower was right to say the government cannot avoid responsibilities the people firmly believe it should discharge. But it would be useful to know how firmly the people believe in the discharge of each of modern government's many, many responsibilities. Firmly enough to demand it, or firmly enough to pay for it?
Shifting the Center
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. It's important—in life, in politics, and especially in the democratic politics of an evenly but also deeply and often bitterly divided nation—to know when to take yes for an answer. There could be a prudential argument that at some point, under some set of circumstances, Republicans could best serve the perpetuation of the republic by agreeing to a combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
It's by no means obvious that Republicans should accept any particular "grand bargain," however, even the hypothetical 10-to-1 package the GOP's presidential candidates appalled decent people everywhere by dismissing. For one thing, Democratic budget negotiators would not be offering 91% of what Republicans were seeking in the hope of making new friends, but only because they felt it was the best deal the correlation of political forces would allow them to get. That deal is, nearly by definition, not the best the Republicans could get, which justifies holding out for a better one. Secondly, it won't matter whether the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is 1-to-1, 10-to-1, or 10,000-to-1 if the spending cuts never happen. The pragmatic, flexible Ronald Reagan who signed the 1982 tax increase—seemingly, to rebuke today's anti-tax zealots in the GOP—believed he was agreeing to a deal that would cut $3 in federal spending for every $1 of increased revenue. According to Hayward's Age of Reagan, the result was $1.14 of increased spending for every additional dollar of revenue.
Clearly, if Democrats are in a position to determine whether social welfare spending goes up or down, they won't permit the latter because decades of reflection have left them convinced that Franklin Roosevelt's call to suffuse the government of this vast republic with the "vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity" is crazy and creepy. They'll do it because they have to. And they'll have to if they don't have the money or the votes to do otherwise—which is really two ways of saying the same thing, because if they have the votes, in the country and in Congress, they can get the money.
In short, the only rebuke of the deranged, malevolent Republicans that will and should make a difference will be delivered, not in think tank auditoriums or op-ed columns, but in voting booths. Republicans will be obliged, practically and morally, to give the most serious consideration to discarding their opposition to tax increases when they start losing elections because of it. Disappointing as this year's election was for the GOP, that rebuke from the voters does not appear to be at hand. 2012 marked the eighth time in the ten most recent congressional elections that Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives. Thus, the bad Republicans who define themselves by determined opposition to any subsequent iteration of George H.W. Bush's 1990 tax increase will constitute a majority in the House for 16 of the 20 years after 1994. Their extreme position is evidently one a great many voters share, strongly suggesting it may not be all that extreme. By contrast, the good Republicans, moderately and responsibly amenable to tax increases that keep the airport walkway moving, had a majority in the House for a total of four years out of the 64 before the 1994 elections. As Republicans figure out what they do after 2012, moderation's history of electoral and governmental futility should weigh heavily against arguments for restoring it.
* * *
Author Geoffrey Kabaservice discusses William Voegeli's essay in our online feature, Upon Further Review.
* * *
For Correspondence on this essay, click here.