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Is The Gop Cynical Or Naive?

Responding to Ezra Klein's contention that the GOP alternative budget unveiled this week was a cynical effort at "messaging," rather than a serious attempt at governance, Ross Douthat suggests:

Sure, there may be some cynicism involved in how the Ryan proposal makes its numbers add up. But the overall outline - an across-the-board tax cut and a flatter tax code, substantial means-testing for Social Security and Medicare, and a five-year discretionary spending freeze - strikes me as the opposite of cynical. Rather, there's a kind of deep innocence about it: The purity of its small-government vision is more detached from the grubby realities of American politics than any similar document I can remember....

Sometimes naivete in the short run is wisdom in the long run. And maybe by providing such a rigorously small-government alternative to Obamanomics, the Congressional GOP will succeed in pushing the conversation rightward.... But sometimes naivete is just naivete. Sometimes, putting your least-popular ideas together in one agenda just makes it easier for your opponents to run circles around you. And right now, I think the country could use a right-of-center party that paid a little more attention to its messaging, and a little less attention to its blueprints for the ideal small-government society. 

Are GOP House leaders cynical or naive? It strikes me that they--and a disturbingly large section of the party--are both. The GOP budget alternative isn't just goofy (though it certainly is that), it is breathtakingly dishonest: inventing insane, impossible Democratic spending numbers for 60 years' worth of future budgets and pretending they come from the CBO? Cutting the top marginal tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, but calculating deficit numbers based on the idea that taxpayers would voluntarily choose to pay the higher rate anyway? Such wild, deliberate deceptions are no part of a "pure" or "rigorous" small-government vision. GOP leaders in the House are trying to sell something, and they're trying to sell it by lying through their teeth.

The problem--and this is where the naivete comes in--is that, as Ross notes, what they're trying to sell isn't what most Americans want, ridiculous budgeting gimmicks or no ridiculous budgeting gimmicks. A variety of factors--the media chorus of talk radio and Fox News, the increasing number of GOP House members that come from conservative districts, the vocal pressure groups and riled up voter base--seem to have persuaded a fair number of GOP leaders that this is not merely a center-right nation, but a far-right one, a place where if you just screw around with the numbers a bit, the public will clamor for economic policies far more conservative than any pushed by Reagan or Bush II. That they believe this three months into the term of the most liberal president elected in a generation, at a moment when he is still very popular and they are still very not, is a testament to the imperviousness of the echo chamber.

A couple of days ago, I caught a few minutes of conservative talker Mark Levin on the radio, and it was a fascinating trip down the rabbit hole. The subject of his broadcast--or, at least, the few minutes I Iistened to--was what arguments could be used to persuade voters that conservatives had the right answers for these times. And the answer he gave is that they need to hear the broadcast of Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech endorsing Barry Goldwater, "A Time For Choosing." (The show seems to have been rebroadcast from December, suggesting that Reagan's lessons withstand the test of months as well as decades.) Levin interrupted the speech every couple of minutes to extol its virtues and go on at length about the difference between "us" (i.e., conservatives) and "them" (i.e., liberals). To call the praise he heaped upon the former and scorn he dumped on the latter hyperbolic would stretch the word to its limit.

Again, this wouldn't be that surprising but for the fact that Levin was doing this all in the context of, in his mind, outreach to nonconservatives. This 45-year-old speech, interspersed with outpourings of partisan invective, wasn't just intended for his usual red-meat listenership; it was his idea, to all appearances genuinely held, of how the GOP could win back Obama swing voters.

The GOP alternative budget is, as far as I can tell, more of the same: a wildly dishonest, bitterly partisan document based on the idea that, if they could just get the "message," a majority of Americans would love to vote for Barry Goldwater.

--Christopher Orr