When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality?
It’s a very strange experience to have your friends think you’ve gone crazy. Some will tell you so. Others will indulgently humor you. Still others will avoid you. More than a few will demand that the authorities do something to get you off the streets. During one unpleasant moment after I was fired from the think tank where I’d worked for the previous seven years, I tried to reassure my wife with an old cliché: “The great thing about an experience like this is that you learn who your friends really are.” She answered, “I was happier when I didn’t know.”
It’s possible that my friends are right. I don’t think so—but then, crazy people never do. So let me put the case to you.
I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support.
America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.
It was not so long ago that Texas governor Bush denounced attempts to cut the earned-income tax credit as “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” By 2011, Republican commentators were noisily complaining that the poorer half of society are “lucky duckies” because the EITC offsets their federal tax obligations—or because the recession had left them with such meager incomes that they had no tax to pay in the first place. In 2000, candidate Bush routinely invoked “churches, synagogues, and mosques.” By 2010, prominent Republicans were denouncing the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan as an outrageous insult. In 2003, President Bush and a Republican majority in Congress enacted a new prescription-drug program in Medicare. By 2011, all but four Republicans in the House and five in the Senate were voting to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from everybody under age 55. Today, the Fed’s pushing down interest rates in hopes of igniting economic growth is close to treason, according to Governor Rick Perry, coyly seconded by The Wall Street Journal. In 2000, the same policy qualified Alan Greenspan as the “greatest central banker in the history of the world,” according to Perry’s mentor, Senator Phil Gramm. Today, health reform that combines regulation of private insurance, individual mandates, and subsidies for those who need them is considered unconstitutional and an open invitation to “death panels.” A dozen years ago, a very similar reform was the Senate Republican alternative to Hillarycare. Today, stimulative fiscal policy that includes tax cuts for almost every American is “socialism.” In 2001, stimulative fiscal policy that included tax cuts for rather fewer Americans was an economic recovery program.
I can’t shrug off this flight from reality and responsibility as somebody else’s problem. I belonged to this movement; I helped to make the mess. People may very well say: Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you work in the George W. Bush administration that disappointed so many people in so many ways? What qualifies you to dispense advice to anybody else?
Fair question. I am haunted by the Bush experience, although it seems almost presumptuous for someone who played such a minor role to feel so much unease. The people who made the big decisions certainly seem to sleep well enough. Yet there is also the chance for something positive to come out of it all. True, some of my colleagues emerged from those years eager to revenge themselves and escalate political conflict: “They send one of ours to the hospital, we send two of theirs to the morgue.” I came out thinking, I want no more part of this cycle of revenge. For the past half-dozen years, I have been arguing that we conservatives need to follow a different course. And it is this argument that has led so many of my friends to demand, sometimes bemusedly, sometimes angrily, “What the hell happened to you?” I could fire the same question back: “Never mind me—what happened to you?”
So what did happen? The first decade of the 21st century was a crazy bookend to the twentieth, opening with a second Pearl Harbor and ending with a second Great Crash, with a second Vietnam wedged in between. Now we seem caught in the coils of a second Great Depression. These shocks radicalized the political system, damaging hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton in the Bush years and then driving Republicans to dust off the economics of Ayn Rand.
Some liberals suspect that the conservative changes of mind since 2008 are opportunistic and cynical. It’s true that cynicism is never entirely absent from politics: I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played about the lips of the leader of one prominent conservative institution as he told me, “Our donors truly think the apocalypse has arrived.” Yet conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.
Conservatives have been driven to these fevered anxieties as much by their own trauma as by external events. In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There’s one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault! And when the new president fails to deliver rapid recovery, he can be designated the target for everyone’s accumulated disappointment and rage. In the midst of economic wreckage, what relief to thrust all blame upon Barack Obama as the wrecker-in-chief.
The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers. For the past three years, the media have praised the enthusiasm and energy the tea party has brought to the GOP. Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.
Many hope that the tea-party mood is just a passing mania, eventually to subside into something more like the businessperson’s Republicanism practiced in the nineties by governors and mayors like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, Christine Todd Whitman and Dick Riordan, Tommy Thompson and John Engler. This hope tends to coalesce around the candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, two smart and well-informed former governors who eschew the strident rhetoric of the tea party and who have thereby earned its deep distrust. But there are good reasons to fear that the ebbing of Republican radicalism remains far off, even if Romney (or Huntsman) does capture the White House next year.
1. Fiscal Austerity and Economic Stagnation
We have entered an era in which politics increasingly revolves around the ugly question of who will bear how much pain. Conservative constituencies already see themselves as aggrieved victims of American government: They are the people who pay the taxes even as their “earned” benefits are siphoned off to provide welfare for the undeserving. The reality is, however, that the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies. Squeezing the programs conservatives most dislike—PBS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, tax credits for the poor, the Department of Education, etc.—yields relatively little money. Any serious move to balance the budget, or even just reduce the deficit a little, must inevitably cut programs conservative voters do like: Medicare for current beneficiaries, farm subsidies, veterans’ benefits, and big tax loopholes like the mortgage-interest deduction and employer-provided health benefits. The rank and file of the GOP are therefore caught between their interests and their ideology—intensifying their suspicion that shadowy Washington elites are playing dirty tricks upon them.
2. Ethnic Competition
White America has been plunged into a mood of pessimism and anger since 2008. Ron Brownstein reports in the National Journal: “63 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they expected their children to exceed their standard of living. Even college-educated whites are less optimistic (only about two-fifths agree). But the noncollege whites are the gloomiest: Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group is nearly that negative.” Those fears are not irrational. In postrecession America, employers seem to show a distinct preference for foreign-born workers. Eighty percent of the net new jobs created in the state of Texas since 2009 went to the foreign-born. Nationwide, foreign-born workers have experienced a net 4 percent increase in employment since January 2009, while native-born workers have seen continuing employment declines. Which may explain why President Obama’s approval rating among whites slipped to 41 percent in January 2010 and is now testing a new low of 33 percent. The president’s name and skin color symbolize the emergence of a new America in which many older-stock Americans intuit they will be left behind.
It is precisely these disaffected whites—especially those who didn’t go to college—who form the Republican voting base. John McCain got 58 percent of noncollege-white votes in 2008. The GOP polls even higher among that group today, but the party can only sustain those numbers as long as it gives voice to alienation. Birtherism, the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States, expressed the feeling of many that power has shifted into alien hands. That feeling will not be easily quelled by Republican electoral success, because it is based on a deep sense of dispossession and disinheritance.
3. Fox News and Talk Radio
Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.
But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”
We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.
When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it’s tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit. The billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. The bizarre fiasco of campaign-finance reform has perversely empowered them to give unlimited funds anonymously to special entities that can spend limitlessly. (Thanks, Senator McCain! Nice job, Senator Feingold!) Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair.
Over the past few years, I have left this alternative knowledge system behind me. What is that experience like? A personal story may be relevant here.
Through the debate over health-care reform in 2009–10, I urged that Republicans try to reach some kind of deal. The Democrats had the votes to pass something. They could not afford to lose. Providing health coverage to all is a worthy goal, and the core mechanisms of what we called Obamacare should not have been obnoxious to Republicans. In fact, they were drawn from past Republican plans. Democrats were so eager for Republican votes to provide bipartisan cover that they might well have paid a substantial price to get them, including dropping the surtaxes on work and investment that supposedly financed the Affordable Care Act. My urgings went unheeded, obviously. Senator Jim DeMint predicted that health care would become Obama’s Waterloo, the decisive defeat that would destroy his presidency, and Republicans accepted DeMint’s counsel. So they bet everything—and lost everything. A major new entitlement has been written into law, financed by redistributive new taxes. Changes in the bill that could have been had for the asking will now require years of slow, painful legislative effort, if they ever come at all. Republicans hope that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act. Such a decision would be the most dramatic assertion of judicial power since the thirties, and for that reason alone seems improbable. Yet absent action by the Supreme Court, outright repeal of President Obama’s health-care law is a mirage, requiring not only 60 votes in the Senate but also the withdrawal of benefits that the American people will have gotten used to by 2013.
On the day of the House vote that ensured the enactment of health-care reform, I wrote a blog post saying all this—and calling for some accountability for those who had led the GOP to this disaster. For my trouble, I was denounced the next day by my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal as a turncoat. Three days after that, I was dismissed from the American Enterprise Institute. I’m not a solitary case: In 2005, the economist Bruce Bartlett, a main legislative author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, was fired from a think tank in Dallas for too loudly denouncing the George W. Bush administration’s record, and I could tell equivalent stories about other major conservative think tanks as well.
I don’t complain from a personal point of view. Happily, I had other economic resources to fall back upon. But the message sent to others with less security was clear: We don’t pay you to think, we pay you to repeat. For myself, the main consequences have been more comic than anything else. Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Newsweek arguing that Republicans would regret conceding so much power to Rush Limbaugh. Until that point, I’d been a frequent guest on Fox News, but thenceforward some kind of fatwa was laid down upon me. Over the next few months, I’d occasionally receive morning calls from young TV bookers asking if I was available to appear that day. For sport, I’d always answer, “I’m available—but does your senior producer know you’ve called me?” An hour later, I’d receive an embarrassed second call: “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.” Earlier this year, I did some volunteer speechwriting for a Republican contemplating a presidential run. My involvement was treated as a dangerous secret, involving discreet visits to hotel suites at odd hours. Thus are political movements held together. But thus is not how movements grow and govern.
Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. It’s clearly true that the country faces daunting economic troubles. It’s also true that the wrong answers to those problems will push the United States toward a future of too much government, too many taxes, and too much regulation. It’s the job of conservatives in this crisis to show a better way. But it’s one thing to point out (accurately) that President Obama’s stimulus plan was mostly a compilation of antique Democratic wish lists, and quite another to argue that the correct response to the worst collapse since the thirties is to wait for the economy to get better on its own. It’s one thing to worry (wisely) about the long-term trend in government spending, and another to demand big, immediate cuts when 25 million are out of full-time work and the government can borrow for ten years at 2 percent. It’s a duty to scrutinize the actions and decisions of the incumbent administration, but an abuse to use the filibuster as a routine tool of legislation or to prevent dozens of presidential appointments from even coming to a vote. It’s fine to be unconcerned that the rich are getting richer, but blind to deny that middle-class wages have stagnated or worse over the past dozen years. In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.
I refuse to believe that I am the only Republican who feels this way. If CNN’s most recent polling is correct, only half of us sympathize with the tea party. However, moderate-minded people dislike conflict—and thus tend to lose to people who relish conflict. The most extreme voices in the GOP now denounce everybody else as Republicans in Name Only. But who elected them as the GOP’s membership committee? What have they done to deserve such an inheritance? In the mid-sixties, when the party split spectacularly between Ripon Republicans, who embraced the civil-rights movement, and Goldwater Republicans, who opposed it, civil-rights Republicans like Michigan governor George Romney spoke forcefully for their point of view. Today, Republicans discomfited by political and media extremism bite their tongues. But if they don’t speak up, they’ll be whipsawed into a choice between an Obama administration that wants to build a permanently bigger government and a conservative movement content with permanently outraged opposition.
This is, unfortunately, not merely a concern for Republican voters. The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
We can debate when the slide began. But what seems beyond argument is that the U.S. political system becomes more polarized and more dysfunctional every cycle, at greater and greater human cost. The next Republican president will surely find himself or herself at least as stymied by this dysfunction as President Obama, as will the people the political system supposedly serves, who must feel they have been subjected to a psychological experiment gone horribly wrong, pressing the red button in 2004 and getting a zap, pressing blue in 2008 for another zap, and now agonizing whether there is any choice that won’t zap them again in 2012. Yet in the interests of avoiding false evenhandedness, it must be admitted: The party with a stronger charge on its zapper right now, the party struggling with more self-imposed obstacles to responsible governance, the party most in need of a course correction, is the Republican Party. Changing that party will be the fight of a political lifetime. But a great political party is worth fighting for.