The ‘transformation’ needs some work

THE ‘TRANSFORMATION’ NEEDS SOME WORK…. One of the more talked about political pieces of the week was this Politico article from Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. As the writers see it, the Republican Party, lost and directionless two years ago, finally has a focus that will serve the GOP well.

The pitch is pretty straightforward: the Republican Party is in the midst of an “unmistakable 20-month transformation.” While it was “fanatically anti-Obama,” it’s now “fanatically anti-spending … at the federal, state and local levels.” VandeHei and Allen see the shift as constructive, and as an electoral matter, beneficial.

To understand the current evolution, flash back to late spring of 2009. The GOP was disoriented and adrift, its leadership void filled by the bombastic voices of Palin, Beck and Rush Limbaugh. There was no common conservative cause, beyond fear and loathing of Obama. No wonder swing voters were so down on them.

But the tea party, treated at first by the media as exotics, forced Republicans to focus almost exclusively on the size of government. By the time the 2010 elections rolled around, tea party activists and most independent voters were completely aligned on the need to cut, cut, cut. Midterm election results showed that this approach offers the GOP its best — and maybe only — hope of keeping the interests of independents and tea party activists aligned enough to beat Obama.

The new litmus tests for GOP presidential hopefuls are support for repealing “Obamacare” and taking a cleaver to government spending. If a presidential candidate could harness the smaller-government conservatism, temper it enough to avoid a blatant overreach and articulate a vision for a prosperous future for the country, it’s not hard to imagine swing voters finding such a person appealing.

I think this is wrong in a variety of important ways. In fact, on a fundamental level, I suspect VandeHei and Allen have all of this backwards.

First, right off the bat, to say there was “no common conservative cause” in 2009 is mistaken. In fact, there was only one principal goal for the party early on: cut spending. It’s apparently easy to forget two years later, but the entirety of the Republican response to the global economic crisis and threat of a depression was a massive, across-the-board spending freeze, which they demanded should be maintained for five years. (Even David Brooks called this “insane” at the time.)

Second, the VandeHei/Allen thesis is predicated on the notion that the Republicans’ Tea Party wing genuinely wants to slash spending. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. As Jon Chait explained the other day, “[T]he evidence that Tea Party activists want to cut spending — at least actual spending programs — is sparse. Polls show that Tea Party supporters overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The main thrust of Tea Party opinion is not the belief that Obama has spent too much money, but the belief that Obama has spent too much money on people unlike them.”

It’s precisely why one need look no further than a typical Tea Party rally to find all kinds of folks who love government spending, just so long as they’re the beneficiaries of taxpayer generosity.

And third, the VandeHei/Allen argument is that all of this can pay electoral dividends, as Republicans appeal to swing voters with promises of more cuts and smaller-government conservatism. I don’t know what polls VandeHei and Allen have been reading, but literally all of the data I’ve seen shows voters, including “swing” voters, prioritizing job creation and economic growth over spending cuts and deficit reduction. Indeed, it’s not even close.

Remember, despite the preoccupation with cuts from the political establishment, the American mainstream doesn’t like cuts at all. Congressional Republicans, catering to the Tea Party demands, are pushing to slash education, medical research, infrastructure, job training, and national security, and by all accounts, most of the country thinks this is a terrible idea. Republican governors in big, competitive states are already trying this, and voters hate it.

I admittedly haven’t done campaign work in a long while, but if memory serves, promising swing voters you’ll cut popular programs they don’t want to cut isn’t a recipe for success, unless the goal is to lose.

In other words, I have no idea what VandeHei and Allen are talking about.