The GOP Negotiating Position Is Weaker Than David Brooks Thinks

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On the debt ceiling, Republicans will win if they're savvy enough to take the Democratic deal. But their longer term position is tenuous.

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Everybody is talking about the latest David Brooks column, "The Mother of All No Brainers." A scathing attack on the GOP for its refusal to cut a deal on the debt ceiling, it's been called "remarkable" by political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, who says it's a big deal for the columnist to criticize fellow Republicans so harshly. Megan McArdle concurred with its contention that revenue increases are a necessary part of any bipartisan agreement to avoid catastrophic default. Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner says it's based on the false premise that Democrats are offering entitlement cuts in exchange for merely eliminating tax credits -- they're after increases in income tax rates too, he insists. Perhaps most notably, David Frum calls the column "a manifesto for our times," after explaining that "The Obama program can (and in large measure should) be repealed," but that default on debts "is not an acceptable tool of politics."

The column and the reactions to it are significant partly because one faction on the right, the establishment moderates, are sending a signal to Tea Party candidates and their supporters. They're saying, "We want you to win this game of chicken -- but whereas a faction on the right would rather crash than be first to swerve, that isn't the way we feel, and we'll blame you if there's an accident."

It's a useful signal to send, both because it accurately reflects reality, and because it may decrease the likelihood of default just a little bit, a good outcome. But I dissent from the proposition that this column be treated as a guiding manifesto. It may offer sound advice in this single circumstance, but what ails the right isn't best addressed by urging more willingness to sign onto bipartisan compromises or defer to expert opinion. Nor is the answer more Brooksian framing that casts every legislative fight as a defining moral moment.

Better to address the fundamental problem: the Republican Party has failed to persuade the American people that the small government vision it claims to favor is the right way forward. The failure spans many decades. In fact, almost every pathology on the right is explained partly by the refusal to acknowledge this, and thus the inability to either find a remedy or to adopt an alternative vision of conservatism.   

How did it come to this?

Here are three reasons among many:

1) Starve the Beast. In the 1970s, the Republican mainstream became convinced that by starving the government of revenue, it would force spending reductions, resulting in a smaller federal government. "The only effective way to restrain government spending," Milton Friedman wrote in a 1978 issue of Newsweek, "is by limiting government's explicit tax revenue -- just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual's or family's spending." The short story: the strategy failed, deficits skyrocketed, and despite decades of empirical confirmation, the right has yet to accept that "starve the beast" doesn't work. But in hindsight it's easy to see why. Had taxes increased every time the federal government got bigger, voters would have resisted its growth sooner. But the Republicans were complicit in a strategy that made bigger government appear much cheaper than was in fact the case.  

2) The deficit has seldom been priority one on the right. Ronald Reagan was willing to run it up to outspend the Soviet Union and otherwise get his way on national security policy. George H.W. Bush angered many in the GOP when he broke his "no new taxes" pledge to avoid increasing the deficit. George W. Bush cut taxes, launched expensive wars of choice, and passed a huge increase in entitlement spending simultaneously, and no grassroots protest movement arose to object. Even now, as the tea party movement demands that spending be cut radically, it is represented by a Congress composed partly of Republicans who dinged Obama for cutting Medicare. And many Republicans are insisting that it's vital for us to increase defense spending, wage a war of choice against Libya, keep our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for even longer than president Obama wants, and to cut marginal tax rates at the same time.

3) Rather than participating in public discourse, whether in the media, academia, or entertainment, the right reacted to its sometimes unfair treatment in those realms by ceding them to the left and creating their own alternative institutions. On the whole, these endeavors have been great at generating revenue for their owners. Unfortunately, they've contributed to slovenly thought on the right by encouraging its intellectuals to "preach to the choir." The incentive system at work just doesn't reward making converts nearly so much as firing up the base.

In his column, David Brooks says that the GOP should cut a deal, but he also says this:
 

The Republicans have changed American politics since they took control of the House of Representatives. They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course.  Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them.

Says a writer at The Economist: "The irony is that this inflexible negotiating position has gotten Republicans 'the deal of the century,' as Mr Brooks says. It also means they are unable to take it."

What I wish Brooks would have said is that, even though the right has won concessions in this instance, extracting spending cuts by intransigently signalling that you'll explode the economy if you don't get your way is at bottom a shortcut. Had the GOP really "put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda" they could get a deal even without this negotiation on the debt ceiling.

McArdle puts it best:

The political logic is infantile.  The American public does not want you to cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security.  There is no monopartisan substitute for persuading people to agree with you.  Just as the Democrats spent way too much time reading their own press releases on ObamaCare, only to find that their cherished legislation was instantly at risk of dismemberment by legislative and court challenges.   Imagine that the GOP forces through an all-cuts deal--or forces the country into default?  What's the next logical step? Why, probably that an angry nation sends more Democrats to Congress (and Obama back to the White House), where they happily "restore" the programs that "brutal" Republicans tried to "gut" with "draconian" cuts.  Those Democrats will probably get elected to office by lying about the possibilities for closing the budget deficit via nothing but tax increases on the "rich".  So what?  Their GOP predecessors got there by spinning fairy tales about the massive dynamic effects of changes in tax policy.

This is why the budget deals that have succeeded generally had bipartisan support.  If one party tries to do things all their own way, well, the other party will promptly be elected to undo some of those changes.  I can admire someone who's willing to be a one-term congressman in order to do something big and important.  But what's the point if your big, important legislation doesn't live much longer than your political career?

Here's a manifesto for the GOP: however the current negotiations play out, stop imagining that you can shrink the size of the federal government in the long term without first winning over more voters -- enough, for example, that you can win a legislative battle on spending and revenue without holding the economy hostage.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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