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the column "a manifesto for our times," after explaining that "The Obama program can (and in large measure should) be repealed," but that default on debts "is not an acceptable tool of politics."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.

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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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