A wise, out-of-touch coastal elite once wrote that American conservatism was less a political philosophy than a set of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This was never a fair summary of our nation’s rich tradition of reactionary thought — but it is a serviceable definition of the Republican agenda, circa 2018.
Today’s Grand Old Party is officially committed to ever-lower taxes on the rich, ever-higher spending on the military, and a balanced budget within ten years. It would be virtually impossible to square these three priorities, even if Republicans had the courage of Charles Koch’s convictions on entitlement spending. But they don’t. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaigned against Barack Obama’s “Medicare cuts” in 2012; Donald Trump ran on a promise not to cut one penny from Social Security or Medicare in 2016; and last year, the Republican leadership proved unwilling to fully abolish Barack Obama’s main addition to the welfare state — and unable to get 50 GOP senators to support even reducing its benefits.
Thus, there’s no coherent philosophy behind the actually-existing Republican agenda. The party’s primary purpose is to serve as a low-risk, high-return investment for reactionary economic elites; to fulfill that function, it must always push for lower taxes, irrespective of economic conditions; and to secure the political power necessary for slashing taxes, it must respect the big-government goodies beloved by its elderly base, dole out heaping helpings of military Keynesianism to congressional districts with army bases, feed the flames of white racial resentment, and, on occasion, serenade symbolically conservative voters with paeans to fiscal responsibility.
The easiest way for the party to reconcile these contradictory commitments is to run enormous deficits. Tax cuts for the rich are unpopular; but tax cuts for the rich funded by spending cuts on the middle class are radioactive. And, at the end of the day, the GOP’s billionaire donors care more about collecting their ROI than getting Uncle Sam small enough to drown in a bathtub. There are a decent number of voters who like the idea of balanced budgets in the abstract; but very few who actually vote on that issue. The prudent path is, therefore, to (regressively) distribute free lunches today, then try to hector a Democratic president into cutting entitlements, tomorrow.
Alas, congressional Republicans aren’t a perfectly prudent bunch. Some sizable number of conservative lawmakers and donors earnestly believe that they have a coherent, democratically viable theory of government. And so, when Congress returns from recess, Paul Ryan won’t just push for more tax cuts; he will also push for a balanced-budget amendment.
The political logic behind that first objective is sound. As Politico explains:
Republicans are dreaming of passing another round of tax cuts this year — or at least making vulnerable Democrats squirm by voting against them.
GOP leaders are weighing a series of votes to make last year’s temporary tax cuts for individuals permanent, according to Republicans in both chambers. The strategy would portray the party as the guardian of Americans’ paychecks, Republicans say, and buoy the GOP during a brutal election year.
Since Democrats were more than comfortable withholding support from the GOP’s giant package of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations last December, Republicans had to pass that bill through “budget reconciliation” — a special process that immunizes bills against a Senate filibuster, so long as they don’t add to the deficit ten years after they’re passed. This forced the GOP to make its true priorities explicit. Their bill would need to raise taxes on some people, in the long run, in order to be deficit-neutral by 2028; and they decided that corporations should not be those “people.” The corporate rate cut would thus be permanent, the middle-class tax cuts temporary.
This gave Democrats their strongest talking point against the bill. But by introducing legislation to make those middle-class tax cuts permanent, Republicans have a chance to either eliminate that liability (by coercing ten Senate Democrats into voting for unpaid-for, permanent tax cuts for the middle class) or else to turn it into an asset (by coercing congressional Democrats into voting against permanent tax cuts for the middle class).
It’s a clever gambit. And one just cynical enough to work — if ideologically driven conservatives weren’t determined to simultaneously remind the public that tax cuts aren’t free, and that their party is determined to use the deficits that tax cuts generate as an excuse for slashing overwhelmingly popular public programs. As Politico reports:
HOUSE REPUBLICANS will take up a balanced-budget amendment when they return from recess, several sources tell us. This follows on the heels of their $1.3-trillion budget bill and their massive tax bill. WHY DO THIS NOW? Here’s what we think: It’s almost election season, and it would be helpful if GOP lawmakers could go home and be able to say they voted to support balancing the federal budget, even though they voted boosted discretionary spending by a ton, and have not touched entitlement spending, which, they have said for years, is the driver of U.S. budget deficits.
Maybe this is a useful line in low-turnout Republican primaries. But the move has scant political upside outside of that context. Republicans didn’t spend most of last year insisting that their tax cuts would magically pay for themselves just for kicks and giggles; they did so because proposing to pay for them with spending cuts wasn’t politically viable. Now, weeks after Conor Lamb won a congressional election in the heart of Trump Country — by warning voters that Paul Ryan was coming for their Medicare and Social Security — Ryan is ostensibly preparing to have all of his members formally declare that this is, in fact, their intention.
Now, maybe Republicans plan to tell voters that they can balance the federal budget just by rousting the undeserving poor from their welfare hammocks. But even this would be a tough sell. Polls routinely find that large pluralities of GOP voters support higher federal spending on health care and oppose lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Any gesture that reminds voters that scarcity exists — and that tax cuts come with trade-offs — is unlikely to redound to Republicans’ benefit.
But conservative true believers in the Republican House caucus, donor class, and activist base aren’t ready to accept that their movement’s fiscal agenda amounts to little beyond upward redistribution and “irritable mental gestures.” And for that, Democratic campaign consultants should be eternally thankful.