Welcome back to my outsider’s ruminations on the nature of modern (American) conservatism. Last time I mostly focused my efforts on the development of the modern conservative attitude and why it’s proven vulnerable to Trumpism after decades of unchallenged Reaganism. Today, I’ll explain where this leaves the Republican Party now, and how it shapes their view of the future. Now, the first thing to understand is that the 2016 election has given Republicans unprecedented power over government. In addition to the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, the GOP also has control over no fewer than 32 state legislatures. Two more and they could get Constitutional amendments ratified, which is supposed to be near impossible in a political scene as polarized as ours. With so much control, Republicans should be able to do anything.
Which is why it’s so confusing to many that the Trump Administration has been so slow in getting anything done so far. Almost two months in, and we’re still waiting on his Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Labor to be confirmed. More than that, the repeal of Obamacare that Republicans have promised since some time before it was signed into law is still causing Congressional Republicans to scurry about like headless chickens trying to decide on a replacement for the program. Now, some of Trump’s problems can be attributed to timing – specifically, the timing problems caused by the fact that Congressional Republicans were as surprised as everyone else by his winning the Presidency, and so they didn’t bother to come up with detailed plans for the incoming Congress. Obamacare repeal doesn’t seem like it falls under this category of issue, though, since it’s taken up so much time and thought on the part of Republican thinkers, from Paul Ryan on down, for years now. So, why, exactly, has it taken so long for Trump to come out with a proposal, one that fellow Republicans seem to oppose? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some will tell you that since Obamacare was already cribbed from the Republican alternative to Clinton’s stab at health care reform in the 90’s, there’s no further right you can go on this and still solve the problems with our health insurance. Now, this claim is actually kind of spurious, especially the idea that the Republican Party had actually coalesced around John Chafee’s plan. So that’s not exactly it, since the more conservative wing of the Republican Party opposed that rather similar proposal even at the time.
Wherefore the holdup, then? Liberal columnists like Brian Beutler and Matthew Yglesias seem to have settled on their own interpretation: namely, that the public reasons that Republicans have opposed Obamacare and the private ones are polar opposites on a philosophical level, and that cognitive dissonance means that, depending on whether you find the public or private objections more reasonable, you’re going to be attracted to wildly different plans as a consequence. “The striking thing about Republican use of the CBO report…is that Republicans weren’t exaggerating,” Yglesias observes. “They weren’t making things up, either. They were taking a genuine conservative policy critique of the law – that it was making things too cushy for people, so they might decide to quit working – and turned it into roughly the opposite argument, that the Obamacare jackboot was going to prevent people who wanted jobs from finding work.” In short, Republicans like Mitch McConnell have been going on the record as saying that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t provide generous enough coverage or subsidies, but their real concern is that it’s proven too generous, lowered copays and deductibles too much. This leaves them with a choice between a plan that would be in line with their ideology and reduce coverage, an unpopular move, or to do what Trump is doing now, and change very little about the law while pretending that it’s been scrapped. The third option in line with their rhetoric of increasing subsidies is right out, I guess. Now, Beutler and Yglesias seem to attribute this rhetorical dissonance to cynicism on the part of the Republican Party, who won’t state their true objections to Obama’s health care reform because their opinions on the matter aren’t popular. There’s some truth to this, but I think there may be more to it than that, a larger source of dissonance where this debate is merely scratching the surface.
To understand this larger problem, I’ll need to refer back to Part One of this piece from Sunday. Now, back then, I made the charge that too many Republicans have embraced the image and the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan without understanding the ethos or the rationale behind his policies. You can see this worship of Reagan’s shadow more than his Administration in the way that nuances and conservative hiccups in his record are ignored by those who would be his heirs. Take Grover Norquist and his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a literal oath to never vote to raise taxes, currently signed by 208 Republican House members and 45 Senators. Compare to Reagan, who, after passing significant tax cuts early on in his first term, found himself forced to backpedal repeatedly. On tax issues, Reagan would be an apostate in the modern Republican Party. Why did he do this, though? And why did his successor George Bush the Elder, much more embarrassingly given his rash pledge not to raise taxes? Two words: fiscal responsibility. This is, of course, a major part of the problem that the Republican Party faces, and it’s another aspect of the conflict between rhetoric and policy preference that Beutler and Yglesias were targeting, because whatever economic chicanery they employ to the contrary, Republicans always have to contend with the basic tension between “getting government out of peoples’ lives” (tax cuts) and “not living beyond our means” (deficit reduction). Now, it’s not like Democrats are immune to internal contradictions like this, but that’s a topic for next week. The issue here is that it’s actually pretty easy to square tax cuts and deficit reduction, or at least neutrality: you simply reduce government spending accordingly, and you’re good. But this gets to the real crux of the problem that Beutler and Yglesias identify, because most of the American budget is devoted to Social Security and Medicare, two programs that despite Republican efforts at repeal are still unassailably popular. Republicans have generally given up on their old goal of privatizing Social Security (although Paul Ryan seems to hold out hope on Medicare, depending on what budget he’s advancing this week), and so Trump’s defense of it really isn’t that surprising.
More interesting, though, is the consideration of that big budget item that isn’t Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid (which I’m always more concerned about, but hasn’t been killed so far): defense spending. Republicans are reluctant to look to that for deficit reduction, because the Party is expected to support a strong military, and “the I-word” (isolationist) is still one of the worst epithets a Republican can suffer. There’s a few reasons I can see for why Republicans are loathe to trim the Pentagon budget: for one, Reagan’s legacy includes an arms buildup (and yet not the arms reduction treaty he negotiated later on in his Presidency), and for another, they tend to cultivate a culture of toughness that’s useful both offensively against Democrats and to appeal to the military itself. There’s a third reason that’s most fascinating of all, though: military spending is useful. Now, I mentioned way back in my introduction that Democrats see government as useful, not as an end in itself, but as a way to spend money on the less fortunate, and that makes them different in an asymmetric way from Republicans, who oppose government for its own sake. The thing is, Republicans are expected to be skeptical of government, but they’ve still come to realize that government is useful, too. They just have different beneficiaries in mind. The defense budget is useful because the government doesn’t manufacture its weapons and logistical support services in house: we use private, for profit companies to supply us with these things, and there’s some big money in that. Of the various branches of government that use contractors, the Department of Defense is the most prolific by far, spending ten times as much as the second-most expensive Department. This spending has created an entire industry, and even put Northern Virginia on the map in the process, so there’s no denying the basic logic behind the spending as a way to enrich certain people.
Now, leaving the rage against big business, death merchants, and the military-industrial complex aside, because those are liberal objections, is there anything wrong with this? It reveals the tensions within a conservatism that’s become devoted to a caricature of what Ronald Reagan was. I talked last time about the coalition that Reagan gathered, of fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, and war hawks, but what I didn’t mention was that there was heterogeneity within this group. The “neoconservatives” got the -neo in their names, not so much because they were young and new, but because they were new to conservatism, having only abandoned the left over Vietnam and the perceived shift of that Party to the left under McGovern. And Paul Weyrich, one of the founding figures of both the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right, was also a strong proponent of high-speed rail, an odd contrast from many of his peers. What drew these disparate factions together was an alliance of convenience, not complete agreement on all issues. But unanimity is what’s expected of modern conservatives. Business conservatives must show their faith, and evangelicals must speak the word of the Prosperity Gospel, and both have to take a hard line against America’s foreign foes. George W. Bush was the ultimate exemplar of this synthesis in one person, a scion of wealth, but also a born-again Christian surrounded by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and other noted neoconservatives. Conservatism has become a checklist, and every Republican is expected to fulfill the requirements like Bush did. I see this as a problem not because I’m some squishy centrist who’s allergic to the idea of purity testing, but because there are internal contradictions within this coalition. The neoconservatives will never be able to balance the budget the way the business class wants because defense spending is so expensive, and libertarians in the Republican coalition either have to betray that label like Rand Paul has, or else face down the Christian Right over gay marriage and abortion. The Party insists that the one Reagan size fits all, but the synthesis they’ve settled on is a compromise at war with itself.
The biggest tension of all is the rhetorical one about government, though. Opposition to “big government” is a big part of the glue that holds the coalition together, but government is useful to each of the three major factions that make up the Party. I’ve explained the neoconservatives at length, but social conservatives also need government regulations to create the moral society that they want, with abortion outlawed, tax exemptions for their activities, and whatever other legislation they think is necessary in order for society to be harmonious and moral. They’re social engineers at heart. And business, perhaps the most vociferous of all about tearing down government, may also have the most use for it. You’re probably thinking you’re way ahead of me here on what they want: big, juicy subsidies and contracts from the federal government. And those are considerations, but the most important thing that government can do for business is have more of the one thing that they complain about the most (besides taxes): more government regulation. The regulations that business usually whines about are ones that make their normal operations more expensive or less profitable, but there are also regulations that can make it harder for new firms to enter a market, barriers to entry as economists call them. These ones are extremely useful as a check on competition within a market, which would drive down profit margins for the firms in that market. This is one reason introductory economic logic isn’t a great guide to public policy: it usually assumes that there are no such barriers, and it’s easy for new firms to come in and challenge an existing one’s dominance, but it often doesn’t work that way in the real world, in no small part because big government has been appealed to to cut down on the competition. And with that in mind, you see why I thought Matthew Yglesias was only at the tip of the iceberg when it came to contradictions between public and private positions in the GOP.
These demands on government from different wings of the Republican Party are all potential items on Donald Trump’s domestic agenda, of course. He’s been slow in getting them done for a number of reasons including unpreparedness, Obamacare repeal taking up so much energy, Democratic intransigence, et cetera. But time is of the essence for them, because having so much control over government means that Republicans have no more excuses left for any inability to advance the agenda they’ve run on, and no more time in which to delay dealing with the internal contradictions I’ve laid out here. For the Party that deems government the problem and not the solution, their political fortunes for the next four years are predicated on proving themselves wrong.