When the Republican Party took full control of the federal government in 2017, a drug overdose epidemic had just killed more Americans in a single year than the Vietnam War had claimed over its entire duration. Wage growth for working-class families was tepid, while the costs of housing, health care, and higher education were soaring. Every month, more than 10 million Americans were cutting back on basic nutrition to make rent; every year, tens of thousands were being forced into bankruptcy to cover medical costs. A trillion dollars of student debt had formed an anchor around the millennial generation’s neck, pinning ambitious college graduates down in their parents’ basements. The boomers were entering retirement as the birth rate was plummeting — and the market was giving working families every incentive to keep the latter in free fall. The racial wealth gap was becoming a chasm, while videos of police officers executing black men had become too ubiquitous to make headlines. Inequities in the distribution of income had grown so vast and consequential, the nation’s superrich enjoyed a life expectancy 15 years longer than its poor.
And it had been the hottest year in recorded history for three consecutive years.
Congressional Republicans surveyed this landscape — and concluded that the most pressing policy problems facing the United States in 2017 were that corporate profits (while historically high) were not historically high enough; that taxes on the wealthy (while historically low) were not quite historically low enough; and that (in the middle of a historic public health emergency) the federal government was spending far too much on basic medical care and addiction treatment for the poor.
In a new essay for Politico Magazine, Tim Alberta purports to explain how the GOP arrived at this odd consensus — or, in his preferred framing, why the Republican Party has failed to offer “new ideas” for “21st century” problems.
To the extent that Alberta’s piece offers a compelling answer to this question, it is an entirely inadvertent one: Namely, that some putatively neutral reporters are happy to pretend that the source of the GOP’s intellectual bankruptcy is a mystery — and that the party is not transparently beholden to reactionary plutocrats whose idea of a “21st century” problem is the possibility that the estate tax will outlive them.
Alberta’s inquest into the GOP’s fixation on supply-side tax cuts contains 4,000 words — none of which is “donors.” Not once, in the entire essay, does the reporter even broach the possibility that the intellectual stagnation of Republican politicians, think tanks, and journalists might have something to do with the material interests of the billionaires whose patronage they depend on.
Instead, Alberta’s primary explanation for why the GOP has, in his words, failed to produce policy solutions for the “plateauing incomes for the middle class, lack of social mobility for the poor, displacement due to automation, [or] an opioid crisis that has sidelined millions of potential workers” is this: Donald Trump didn’t let Paul Ryan revolutionize the GOP agenda, which led Ryan to retire, which has left the House GOP bereft of innovative wonks.
When Paul Ryan accepted his promotion to speaker of the House in 2015—a job he did not want, leading a party and an institution that were increasingly ungovernable—a principal justification was the chance he saw to spearhead an intellectual renaissance in the GOP. Republicans had once prided themselves on belonging to the “party of ideas.” But the buzz of Reaganism had long since turned into a hangover, and Ryan, a politician whose values were shaped in the incubator of a conservative think tank, sensed an opening.
Surveying the GOP presidential field and seeing several like-minded reformers—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and even Scott Walker, less a conservative visionary than an accomplished agitator—Ryan knew that his speakership, in partnership with one of them as president, could result in a policy revolution for a party stuck in the 1980s. And so, in October 2015, he seized the speaker’s gavel and got to work, crafting a sweeping set of proposals—on poverty, health care, taxation—that could serve as a ready-made agenda for whichever kindred spirit won the White House.
Donald Trump had other plans.
… The problem for the GOP is that politicians are risk-averse by nature; they are not prone to undertaking anything that is “scary, courageous, unconventional.” This is what concerns intellectual leaders on the right—and what made Ryan’s political celebrity unique. The merits of his proposals aside, he defied the status quo—and exposed himself to intense criticism, even from members of his own party—by injecting enterprising, energizing ideas into the public policy debate, from pushing Social Security reform as a back-bencher in the Bush era to writing his controversial budget blueprints under Obama to proposing unorthodox poverty-fighting programs on Trump’s watch.
There are so many false premises in these these paragraphs, Alberta’s piece ends up reading less like objective reportage than speculative fiction. The reporter never even tries to substantiate the claim that Paul Ryan’s policy vision constituted a revolutionary departure from Reaganism. Which is odd, since it isn’t exactly intuitive how a politician whose signature idea was to slash taxes on the wealthy and corporations — and then offset the cost with reductions in social spending that were fiscally inadequate on paper, and politically impossible in practice — could possibly be the antidote for a Republican Party that’s “stuck in the 1980s.”
Nor does Alberta explain what was so innovative about Paul Ryan’s “poverty” agenda — or attempt to reconcile the Speaker’s putative concern for poor Americans with his support for a health-care plan that would have thrown millions of them off of Medicaid.
But Alberta’s most baffling suggestion is that Donald Trump frustrated Paul Ryan’s quest to chart a new policy course for his party. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth. Trump campaigned on a heterodox platform that included a $1 trillion federal investment in infrastructure, empowering Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over drug prices, and universal health care, among other things. Ryan rejected these departures from GOP orthodoxy. Instead, the Speaker insisted on slashing federal health-care spending, and then using the newfound budgetary space to pass the largest supply-side tax cut the party could get through reconciliation. Trump dutifully followed Ryan’s orders.
Alberta’s claim that Republican lawmakers see introducing novel ideas as unacceptably risky rings true. But his inability to connect this truth to donor pressures is difficult to understand — not least, because multiple Republican lawmakers openly admitted that their legislative actions were dictated by donor pressures just last year.
If Alberta truly wished to understand why Republicans have become so stubbornly “servile to corporations and the wealthy,” he could have just read what they told reporters during the fight over “tax reform” last fall:
“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), himself a millionaire, said on Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday that a failure to pass tax reform would fracture the Republican Party and lead to more far-right wing primary challengers. “The financial contributions will stop,” he added.
… Lawmakers aren’t the only ones talking about the connection between legislation and campaign money. Conservative donors and those running the political groups that help elect Republicans have issued similar dire warnings.
“(Donors) would be mortified if we didn’t live up to what we’ve committed to on tax reform,” Steven Law, the head of Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told the New York Post.
Alternatively, he could have read what the Republican leadership told the New York Times earlier this month:
Republicans have struggled to sell voters on the benefits of the tax cuts despite strong economic growth and the lowest unemployment numbers in 20 years. Instead, candidates and the Congressional Leadership Fund have focused their campaign advertisements on more visceral issues such as crime and immigration.
But party leaders say the passage of the law appeased wealthy donors, who had been frustrated by Republicans’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and had threatened to sit out the 2018 campaign. Now, flush with big checks from a handful of deep-pocketed donors, the Congressional Leadership Fund is serving as the party’s best hope of a defense against an electoral defeat in November.
Reporters like Alberta would like to pretend that Donald Trump — and the demagogic brand of conservatism he represents — is the source of the GOP’s intellectual decay. But this gets the causality backward. The Republican Party’s largest shareholders don’t want novel answers to public problems — they want to maximize the returns on their political investments. This leaves the GOP incapable of offering voters credible solutions to contemporary challenges, and thus, requires them to lean on “visceral issues” (a.k.a. white racial panic) to retain and mobilize a mass base. And you don’t need policy wonks to make aging white people feel aggrieved and alienated by intimations of demographic change — racist reality stars are more than capable of fulfilling that function.
Of course, the Trumpist solution creates its own problems, not least, that it renders the hideous reality of modern conservatism too conspicuous for many a “college-educated white” to ignore. Fortunately for Republicans, there are plenty of reporters who will gladly help them obscure that reality, by pretending that the Grand Old Party has no sickness that a fresh-faced thought-leader with rolled-up sleeves, nifty charts — and a talent for feigning concern for the poor while plotting their immiseration — can’t cure.