Political Theory and Punditry from a native of Flyover Country
Over at the Times, Ross Douthat explains why “many Americans can agree with [the country vs. court] critique but still reject the Republican alternative.”
They reject it for two reasons. First, while Republicans claim to oppose the ruling class on behalf of the country as a whole, they often seem to be representing an equally narrow set of interest groups — mostly elderly, rural (the G.O.P. is a “country party” in a far too literal sense) and well-off. A party that cuts food stamps while voting for farm subsidies or fixates on upper-bracket tax cuts while wages are stagnating isn’t actually offering a libertarian populist alternative to the court party’s corrupt bargains. It’s just offering a different, more Republican-friendly set of buy-offs.
Second, as much as Americans may distrust a cronyist liberalism, they prefer it to a conservatism that doesn’t seem interested in governing at all. This explains why Republicans could win the battle for public opinion on President Obama’s first-term agenda without persuading the public to actually vote him out of office. The sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition, was powerful enough to overcome disappointment with the actual results.
Here’s how that opposition, which works just fine when you’re trying to block and prevent President Obama’s legislative priorities, has come to fruition:
Republicans have hamstrung the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, prevented another round of much needed stimulus, declared victory on a fiscal cliff deal that locked in much of the Bush Tax Cuts, blocked even a discussion on climate change and carbon, made every single debt ceiling deal a tense standoff that threatens to shock markets and damage our credit rating, and it looks like the House GOP will kill the Senate’s immigration reform bill.
And the way forward?
My colleague Tim Carney has laid out one version of a “libertarian populist” agenda. (Also read Ben Domenech on the subject.) It’s basically an attempt to recapture, as the name suggests, the populist language of American politics from the Democrats, and this version is one of less government, not more.
Yet I must concur with the critiques offered by the likes of Josh Barro, which is roughly that such attempts at reform are small ball. A GOP that warns of skyrocketing debt obligations must also present a plan for addressing this concern.
But instead we get doozies like this, where Congressional Republicans attack Obama for offering modest reforms to entitlement programs. A major Republican talking point in the 2012 elections was that Obama would cut your Medicare (note who is being addressed by using “your”), and he was slammed for offering a reform to your Social Security this spring.
Here’s the fun part: the GOP must find a way to build a viable electoral coalition of the future without totally sacrificing the voters of the present, who are predominately aged, wealthy, and who react viscerally to any hint of their benefits. This is a voter base that rants about “takers” without noting the irony of hitting the genetic lottery and being beneficiaries of demographic numbers that mean they’ll receive far more than they paid into retirement programs. (And it’s a base that sees nothing strange about being one of the wealthiest generations in history and demanding that my generation of young, struggling workers do it alone.)
But I digress.
In the meantime, the President is just hanging out building constituency after constituency, and he’s able to do it by hardly even trying thanks to an oppositional agenda that manages to be both nonexistent in the concrete and disliked in the abstract. Like the Reagan Coalition was really built by public dissatisfaction at the intellectual burnout of high liberalism, the Obama Coalition is being built by the decline of the usefulness of the animating principles of the Reagan Revolution.
Maybe the ideas of libertarian populism (and its intellectual cousins) will soon come to own the GOP. On one front, foreign policy, we’re going to have a real debate in 2016 between the likes of Rand Paul and Chris Christie. (Good!)
But on the others, I don’t expect to see candidates differ from orthodoxy on taxes, spending, and rhetoric. And what that means in the real world is that cuts must be absorbed by the non-entitlement parts of federal spending (thanks again, old people). That means less money for the young, the middle class, and those who cannot care for themselves. It means silly cuts like those to ARPA-E, less money for food stamps (but no cuts for the old, wealthy farmers!), and ever more aggressive five year plans to cut the debt before we obviously get shellacked by massive inflation and a debt crisis that makes Greece look like child’s play.
I don’t blame the reformocons (or whatever they’re being called these days) for the structural realities of the Reagan coalition. But if the picture is already so bleak, why not just go Bullworth on it all?