The Fiscal Con

It’s a pretty well-known phenomenon that a majority of Americans tend dislike government spending in the abstract, but resist efforts to reduce it once they are concrete. Similarly, a majority of Americans are hostile to “big government” as a construct, but are fiercely defensive about big elements of big government, from Social Security and Medicare to public schools to environmental regulation to the most globally dominant national defense establishment since–well, depending on your definitions, somewhere between the Golden Horde and Victorian England.

This abiding disconnect is a problem for both major political parties, but it’s becoming an excruciating problem for a Republican Party that has become steadily radicalized in its demands for a significantly smaller public sector, at least when it comes to domestic governance.

In a sort of watershed column, Paul Krugman views the GOP’s dilemma as the final stage of a longstanding con game, in which Republican pols feed lies to the party “base” about the phony feasibility of radical spending reduction schemes, which naturally create grassroots pressure for still more radicalism, carrying both “base” and leadership into a fantasy land increasingly remote from fiscal reality:

For a long time the Republican establishment got its way by playing a con game with the party’s base. Voters would be mobilized as soldiers in an ideological crusade, fired up by warnings that liberals were going to turn the country over to gay married terrorists, not to mention taking your hard-earned dollars and giving them to Those People. Then, once the election was over, the establishment would get on with its real priorities — deregulation and lower taxes on the wealthy.

At this point, however, the establishment has lost control. Meanwhile, base voters actually believe the stories they were told — for example, that the government is spending vast sums on things that are a complete waste or at any rate don’t do anything for people like them. (Don’t let the government get its hands on Medicare!) And the party establishment can’t get the base to accept fiscal or political reality without, in effect, admitting to those base voters that they were lied to.

The result is what we see now in the House: a party that, as I said, seems unable to participate in even the most basic processes of governing.

There’s a large measure of truth in this diagnosis–certainly in Krugman’s identification of the Ryan Budget as a landmark document suggesting but never articulating a radical change in the funding priorities of the federal government. I’d say the same about the Cut-Cap-Balance formula which has replaced content-free balanced budget amendment proposals as a GOP litmus test. CCB pretty clearly calls for a radical, permanent reduction in federal spending as a percentage of GDP, but leaves the implications almost entirely to the imagination.

Where I’d differ a bit from Krugman is in his assumption that “the base” (or more specifically, the grassroots activists who are its voice and its commissars) is being conned instead of being in on a con aimed at the rest of the electorate. Consider supportive “base” sentiments about Social Security and Medicare, which a lot of progressives (including Krugman) regard as prima facie evidence of hypocrisy and/or ignorance. I’ve argued for a good long while now that this assumption misses the tendency of many white middle-class conservatives to view “their” entitlements as “earned benefits” (at the very most a half-truth, but a powerful one) which are sharply different in nature from “welfare,” the redistributive spending benefitting those people. A parallel development has been the steady spread of radical thinking in “the base” about public education, with open hostility to “government schools” becoming common along with resistance to expensive “education reform” efforts aimed at lifting opportunity for those people.

You could make a pretty good case that the significance of the Tea Party movement is its open radicalism in favor of a variety of ideological positions and policy ideas that don’t command anything like majority support, but that aren’t based on its activists being “conned” by an “establishment” that pretends huge spending reductions will be pain-free. A big and enduring share of the GOP party “base” has, since the Goldwater campaign, been committed to what is essentially a rollback in the New Deal and Great Society programs, along with the civil rights laws and other anti-discrimination efforts that accompanied the latter. What’s happened since 2008 is that this segment of the base has become radicalized as its practical control over the GOP has been consummated–even when it’s failed to nominate a presidential candidate. And so you have Sarah Palin all but taking over the presidential campaign of the “establishment” figure John McCain in 2008, and in 2012, the “establishment” figure Mitt Romney embracing Cut-Cap-Balance and the Ryan Budget and placing Paul Ryan on the national ticket. At the same time, the self-definition of the “establishment” has become steadily more radical, as evidenced by its current infatuation with Marco Rubio, who on every issue other than immigration reform is a hard-core ideologue.

So if, as Krugman rightly says, there is an approaching crisis-point where the “reality” of governing collides with conservative ideology, it’s not at all clear “the base” will be “disillusioned” by the phony math and evasions of GOP fiscal proposals. It’s more likely they will simply insist on a more straightforward fiscal radicalism at the expense of GOP credibility with voters outside their own ranks. As I’ve argued repeatedly, we are talking about people who don’t necessarily care about party prospects in the next election, or the practical implications of their ideology for the economy or the ability of the federal government to function. They are operating in the context of a different “reality” than their fellow-citizens, and that’s not likely to change in the near future.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.