One of the curious things about the recent revolt by far-right House Republicans is that it was led by some of the party’s Trumpiest figures, yet they were essentially insisting that Congress return to the time before Donald Trump. The Republican-rebel demands — that their leaders stage shutdowns and debt-ceiling threats in the service of bug-eyed hysteria over the budget deficit — “harken back to the tea-party era,” noted Politico. Before the symbol of the right became guys in red hats warning that immigrants and the deep state were destroying the country, it was guys in tricorne hats warning that the stimulus and Obamacare were destroying the country. And now they are back.
When Trump won the nomination in 2016, it was widely believed that the Republican Party’s ideological character had changed in some fundamental way. “His surprising election marked a replacement of the GOP’s free-market conservatism” — exemplified by Paul Ryan — “with a more populist, big-government conservatism,” noted budget hawk Brian Riedl a few years ago, bemoaning the “final nail in the tea-party coffin.” Seeing the nails pop out and the coffin spring back open might seem terribly confusing. What happened to the party’s great philosophical evolution?
The answer is that the Republican philosophy never changed at all. What changed were its circumstances. When Republicans last held the presidency, they happily slashed taxes, jacked up spending, and enjoyed the proceeds of a roaring economy. When they lost the presidency, they decided the budget deficit posed an existential threat. They have been toggling between these two extreme positions for four decades now, and many people still haven’t quite picked up on the pattern. It is when they take one or both chambers of Congress that Republicans see their best opportunity to force the spending cuts they don’t wish to take responsibility for when they have full control of government. That is why now, after two years of cycling through various culture-war panics and complaining idly about inflation, the party has zeroed in on demands to slash the welfare state.
From the end of World War II until the 1980s, the federal government ran smallish deficits. Ronald Reagan changed all that. Reagan cut taxes and increased defense spending, promising the tax cuts would create enough economic growth to erase the lost revenue. (They didn’t.) When Bill Clinton assumed office, Republicans began treating the deficit as a crisis, even shutting down the government in a bid to compel the Democratic president to adopt the Republican program of social-spending cuts.
When George W. Bush succeeded Clinton, the Republican obsession with deficits disappeared, replaced by a Reagan-like binge of more tax cuts and defense spending, sending the deficit skyrocketing again. Republicans thought it was all fine. Vice-President Dick Cheney famously explained, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” They mattered again, of course, when Barack Obama came into office and Republicans returned to apocalyptic warnings about fiscal insolvency. Then when Trump came along, Republicans happily cut taxes again and spent money on both defense and economic relief. When pressed about the fiscal impact, Trump reportedly waxed Cheney-esque: “Who the hell cares about the budget? We’re going to have a country.” Now that the Democrats are back in power, Republicans have naturally flipped the switch from “Who the hell cares” to “We’re all going to die.”
If you remind the Republicans, they might half-apologize for their past sins and insist this time they have truly found religion. And their critics, both within the Republican Party and outside it, treat the manic-depressive pattern as if it represented two completely divergent theories of governing.
It is actually the same theory proceeding from a generally unstated premise: Republicans believe it is immoral to tax the rich at higher rates than the nonrich and would like to hobble or even eliminate the social-welfare state. Yet they understand that the public opposes these preferences. So they pursue them on different tracks. During Republican presidencies, they manically cut taxes for the rich and keep other spending high so that the economy hums along and voters don’t mind. When a Democratic president comes into office, they catastrophize the deficit.
A crucial and consistent aspect of the depressive phase we are currently in is that even while insisting the deficit poses a civilizational threat, they absolutely refuse to consider increasing taxes as part of the solution. (Indeed, the Republicans’ first move under Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been to try to weaken enforcement in the IRS budget, which would make it easier for wealthy people to cheat on their taxes and thereby increase the deficit.)
Since Democrats won’t go along, they inevitably try to compel their participation by taking hostages: shutting down the government or threatening to default on the debt. The purpose of these threats is to force Democrats to enact the social-spending cuts that Republicans can’t get the public to accept on their own.
In the past, Democratic presidents have tried to placate Republicans by entering budget negotiations. This enthusiasm for striking deals with Republicans has waned but hasn’t completely died off. Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin continued their opposition to increasing the debt ceiling without bipartisan support in the period between the midterms and the Republicans taking control of the House, and Manchin has said he wants the two sides to sit down and make a deal to reduce the deficit.
The problem with this naïve approach is that it relies on accepting the Republicans’ current position at face value. Suppose you believe the deficit needs to come down. (I find this reasonable: Bringing down the deficit would make it easier for the Federal Reserve to control inflation without triggering a recession.) Suppose, further, that you think it would be possible to strike a bipartisan deal to do this without cutting programs that either keep the most vulnerable people out of poverty or serve a vital mission. (I find this wildly improbable, but your mileage may vary.)
The problem is that this hypothetical deficit-reducing bargain is not actually going to keep the deficit under control for very long. It will only last until Republicans win control of government again and pass a new round of defense hikes and tax cuts for the rich. Reducing the deficit under Democratic presidents only clears more headroom for Republicans to cut taxes when they gain power. Both Clinton and Obama expended political capital to reduce the deficit only for their Republican successors to spend down the inheritance when their turn arrived.
Looking on in dismay as the Republican Party returned to the doctrinaire anti-government stance it seemed to have abandoned under Trump, Ross Douthat of the New York Times lamented, “It’s like watching a wall of water roll backward, exposing the old coastline, the political topography that the water covered up.” Another way to put this observation is that this is just how tides work: They roll in and out at predictable intervals. Each new deficit deal is actually a castle of sand to be washed away when the tide returns.