The GOP ‘brand’ mustn’t be ‘tainted’

Lori Montgomery has an interesting piece today on the evolution of “anti-tax orthodoxy” in the Republican Party. It’s almost depressing to read about how responsible GOP leaders used to be.

Eisenhower kept wartime tax rates in place through the 1950s in order to dramatically reduce the debt. When JFK proposed large cuts, many Republicans balked — they feared large deficits. Nixon supported extending a surtax, and Ford rejected a permanent tax cut in 1974 for fear of excessive deficits. George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge in order to close the budget gap.

“That party,” Montgomery explained, “is long gone.”

It’s been replaced by a contemporary Republican Party that, with remarkable unanimity, refuses to consider any policy that raises any tax on anyone by any amount at any time for any reason. Period. Full stop.

This orthodoxy is now woven so deeply into the party’s identity that all but 13 of 288 GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. The strategist who invented the pledge, Grover G. Norquist, compares it to a brand, like Coca-Cola, built on “quality control” so that Republican voters know they will get “the same thing every time.”

Loyalty to the brand is so strong that no Republican has voted for a major federal tax increase since 1991, Norquist says. […]

On Capitol Hill, Norquist has admonished [the Gang of Six’s] Coburn (Okla.), Crapo (Idaho) and Chambliss (Ga.) for suggesting a tax option for tackling the debt: reducing credits and deductions worth an estimated $1 trillion a year. Although most of the cash would be used to lower tax rates for everyone, a portion would be dedicated to restoring national solvency.

No good, says Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform. Under the pledge, raising revenue in any way requires an equal tax cut elsewhere to avoid expanding the size of government. And, yes, that sometimes means protecting tax breaks that Republicans view as bad public policy, Norquist and his supporters say.

That last part was especially noteworthy. Republicans are required to protect tax policies they don’t even like, because the larger ideological point is more important than public policy and even the GOP’s own substantive goals.

The article goes on to note that, for Norquist, “the modern Republican Party’s worldview” is paramount. Paraphrasing Norquist, the piece added, “The work of reducing the national debt must be done entirely by shrinking government, he said. Any compromise that includes taxes would hinder that goal and taint the Republican brand.”

It’s tempting to respond to this by raising substantive points. One could explain that the economy benefited after Reagan and Clinton raised taxes. One could note that tax cuts fail to generate economic growth. One could highlight the ways in which tax cuts that Republicans don’t even try to pay for create deficits the GOP pretends to care about.

But the substantive points are clearly irrelevant. Indeed, Norquist doesn’t even try to keep up appearances — he admits this is about brands and worldviews, not public policy.

This reminds me of the overarching fight about parties and pragmatism.

I can imagine a scenario in which President Obama hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it’s time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last two years, looking closely at what worked and what didn’t, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward — let’s do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way — they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still say spending is bad and tax cuts are good. Why? Because their ideology and commitment to brand identity dictates those answers.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this larger dynamic several years ago.

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

As for 2011, Republicans’ abandonment of pragmatism makes compromise all but impossible. They say they want a stronger economy, but won’t strike a deal on stimulus. They say they want less debt, but won’t compromise on revenue.

It’s painful to think how much better off the country would be with the old Republican Party.