Republican Reformers: Right But Maddeningly Vague

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s been a good week for the intellectual cause of reforming the Republican Party. Ramesh Ponnuru has a sharp op-ed in the New York Times today arguing that Ronald Reagan’s economic program was well tailored to the conditions of 1980, but does not meet the needs of the present day. (Ponnuru could have noted that Reagan himself altered his own program in response to the massive structural deficits it created — the conservative liturgy defines the Reagan gospel as the pure 1981 version.) Bush administration veterans Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have a longer piece in Commentary arguing along similar lines.

These are smart arguments and I devoutly hope for their success. Yet they contain the same flaws that seem to recur in all the efforts to reform the GOP from within: an unwillingness to identify or confront the forces within the party that prevent these reforms from succeeding.

Yesterday, for instance, Paul Ryan appeared on This Week to argue once again for why Republicans would not accept any new revenue as part of a deficit reduction plan:

But taking tax loophole, what we've always advocated is necessary for tax reform, means you're going to close loopholes to fuel more spending not to reform the tax code. …

So if you take tax loopholes to fuel more spending, which is what they're proposing, then you are preventing tax reform, which we think is necessary, to end crony capitalism and to grow the economy.

This is pure Republican orthodoxy. What’s remarkable about the ability of anti-tax zealots like Ryan to sustain their position is that it places them in direct opposition to conservative goals on both defense and spending. After all, Obama is offering to cut spending on retirement programs and to cancel out cuts to defense — two things large chunks of the GOP would like — in return for more revenue. He’s not even demanding higher rates. He’s merely asking to reduce tax deductions.

Ryan insists he won’t take the deal, because if he uses the revenue from reducing tax deductions to close the deficit, it won’t be available to reduce tax rates. Every other fiscal priority must give way for the overriding goal of reducing marginal tax rates.

But where are the Republicans speaking in opposition to Ryan and his allies? I haven’t seen a single one. Instead, they ignore the existing configurations altogether. Wehner had a blog post yesterday railing against “the refusal by Democrats to reform entitlement programs in general.” But Obama has been offering to reduce spending on Social Security and Medicare for two years now, in return for Republican agreement to spread the burden of the fiscal adjustment. They won’t take the deal.

Now, maybe Obama's deal isn't exactly what Ponnuru, Gerson, and Wehner would like. But if Republicans want to reform their party's identity and make it into something other than absolutist advocacy of low taxes for the rich, they need to come up with some negotiating position on fiscal issues other than "no tax hikes for the rich of any kind no matter what we get in return."