There’s nothing more consistent in national politics than the clockwork-like inconsistency of Republican budget deficit alarmism: They scream about the deficit when a Democrat occupies the White House, and go quiet when a Republican does.
After inheriting surpluses from President Bill Clinton in 2001, the GOP spent eight years not paying for new spending (on wars and a prescription drug benefit for seniors) while reducing taxes dramatically and in regressive fashion. When Republicans’ disastrous regime culminated in a crippling financial crisis, the structural deficits they had created mushroomed into the trillion-dollar-a-year range, after which they handed control of the government to Democrats and magically rediscovered the virtues of miserliness.
Now that they are on the cusp of reclaiming control of the presidency, Republicans are readying a quick return to the spendthrift days of the George W. Bush administration, but when a Democrat is next elected president, they will toggle right back to austerity politics without bothering to justify the obvious lack of underlying principle.
The cynicism is both familiar and breathtaking, but it isn’t reserved for fiscal policy alone.
Donald Trump’s unexpected election, and the GOP’s ensuing preparations to assume full control of the government, show that something similar is true of the party’s attitude toward public corruption. In deed if not word, Republicans are demonstrating that they regard both deficits and graft as vices to be enjoyed during periods of GOP rule, then become hypocritically outraged about from the wilderness.
The assumption underlying a strategy like this, whether it applies to budgeting or corruption or anything else, is that the voting public ultimately doesn’t care much about the issue at hand, and thus will not punish naked hypocrisy around it. Voters frequently get worked up about deficits, for instance, but generally as a proxy for other animating discontents. The question is whether a similar dynamic drives public attitudes about ethics. And here Republicans may have forgotten just how badly corruption can hobble an administration and harm a party that is failing to deliver for most people.
Because Bush presided over disastrous wars and a global economic crisis, it’s easy to forget that those debacles and others in the Bush era were shot through with corruption scandals large and small. When Bush’s presidency ended, the GOP transformed almost overnight from the party of the K Street Project and U.S. attorneys scandals (among many, many others) into a party that tilted at ethical windmills every turn of the Obama administration. After years of corrupt governing, Republicans insisted even legislative earmarks were too impure for America. When Democrats made policy concessions to senators from Nebraska, Louisiana, and Florida whose votes were required to pass health care reform, Republicans treated it as a earthshaking abuse of power. They gave each measure its own incendiary nickname (“the Cornhusker Kickback,” “the Louisiana Purchase,” “the Gator-ade”) treating as a foregone conclusion that the bargains themselves were corrupt.
Now that Obama is on his way out, Republicans have pivoted again—over the course of just a few weeks—from making a federal case out of Hillary Clinton’s emails to embracing undisguised kleptocracy.
Since winning the presidency in November, Trump has engaged in a spree of bribe-seeking, self-enrichment, and trading off the presidency never seen before at the highest level of U.S. politics. He has escaped widespread rebuke thanks entirely to the congressional GOP’s determination to pretend Trump’s entanglements are all completely normal.
Trump will not be the first corrupt American president, and world history is replete with corrupt political leaders who remained enduringly popular. But it does not follow from there that corruption, like budget profligacy, carries little political risk.
Some corruption is so brazen that it immediately offends the public conscience. Republicans learned this Tuesday when their attempt to kick off the Trump era by gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics backfired spectacularly. The OCE is roughly analogous to an inspector general’s office for the House of Representatives, so the motive for defanging it is plain: It would make getting away with unethical behavior much easier. When reporters broke word of the gambit Monday evening, after a private meeting of House Republicans, the public backlash was swift. Congressional offices were inundated with constituent calls. Trump, feeling the heat, suggested they back off. And by the next afternoon, they had fully retreated.
But even less conspicuous corruption has a way of seeping into the realm of substantive governing, and incurring indirect political costs. It is widely believed that the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the bursting of the housing bubble drove the collapse of the Bush GOP. This is completely true, but also glosses over the extent to which cronyism and corruption contributed in well-documented ways to each of those fiascos. They were not ex machina crises. They all stemmed from a GOP political culture that is far more tolerant of corruption than national Democrats have been in the modern era.
Corruption per se may not carry as much political downside as it ought to, but it stuck easily to the GOP of ten years ago largely because of these failures. Democrats swept control of Congress in 2006 on the strength of a campaign that leaned heavily on the ethical failures of the Bush-era Republican Party—capped off by the revelation that House ethics practices had allowed Republican leaders to let what by all appearances was a pedophilia scandal fester, despite their knowledge of it.
These scandals ultimately drove Democrats to create the Office of Congressional Ethics in the first place. Republicans have been deterred from dismantling that office for now, but their inclination to go back to the good old days of the mid-2000s, and to tolerate much more insidious corruption from Trump himself, is pathologically self-destructive. There is no reason to believe that the Trump-led GOP can satisfy a skeptical public with prosperity and good policies that mask self-enrichment, and when Republicans fail to deliver, corruption will become a symbol of their failure. It will be their undoing.