Why House Republicans Can't Satisfy Their Base

The GOP is right that deficit reduction should be a priority, but has been misleading its rank-and-file for years about taxes and spending cuts

There's a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza tells his in-laws that he bought a house in the Hamptons. They suspect he is fibbing, but rather than admitting to it, he strings them along. Then things get comic. The in-laws know George is lying. And he knows that they know he is lying. But he still won't admit his mendacity, going so far as to drive them out to the neighborhood where his imaginary house is to see "who blinks first." The story captures a pathology you'll see sometimes when someone is caught in a lie. They irrationally postpone the moment of truth as long as possible, though doing so only increases their eventual, inevitable pain.

House Republicans face this kind of problem. They've convinced the conservative base -- rightly, in my estimation -- that the deficit is wildly unsustainable. What they regard as a catastrophic fiscal problem can be solved in these ways: tax increases, spending cuts, or some combination.

This is where the lies come into play.

For years, Republicans have persuaded much of their base that the Bush tax cuts didn't add to the deficit, that cutting taxes generally produces more revenue, and that raising taxes inevitably results in less revenue.

Given those beliefs, it's no wonder they regard any tax increase as unacceptable.

That leaves spending cuts.

But the GOP has also misled its base about them. There are a lot of rank-and-file conservatives and tea partiers who erroneously believe that the budget can be balanced by cutting waste, decreasing foreign aid, and eliminating parts of the federal bureaucracy we'll never miss.

What they're going to find out, sooner rather than later, is that balancing the budget without any tax increases, or trying to run the country without raising the debt ceiling, means deep cuts to stuff that typical Republican voters care about: the Pentagon, Social Security, Medicare, the FBI, the CIA, the border patrol, air traffic controllers, federal emergency assistance, Homeland Security officials, the folks at the FDA who test drugs scheduled to come to market -- the list goes on.

I don't see any scenario in which these rank-and-file conservatives will be satisfied. Either their taxes go up, or else they'll be unprepared for -- and thus unpleasantly surprised by -- the consequences of deep cuts. Those are the best case scenarios. In the worst case, there's no debt ceiling deal, the economy tanks, and the GOP, having claimed at times that the whole thing is being blown out of proportion, gets blamed.

How will it all unfold?

That's anybody's guess, but the notion that it's coherent to be a deficit alarmist and favor the permanence of the Bush tax cuts, or that deep cuts can be made without losing support from typical Republicans, are fantasies. Most House Republicans know it too. And that the truth will out in the end.

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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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