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The Rise of Republican Nihilism

What happened to all those GOP ideas?

Does the Republican Party have any ideas? The query may have a familiar ring. Five years ago, the question of substance was demanded incessantly of the Democrats. Indeed, in one of those intellectual fads that periodically sweep through Washington, the political class became obsessed with the notion that conservatives had unambiguously won what everybody was calling “the war of ideas.” 

The notion was everywhere. The right gloated. (“Conservative thought,” boasted right-wing foundation maven James Piereson, “has seized the initiative in the world of ideas.”) Republicans scolded the opposition. (President Bush chastised Democrats in Congress: “[I]f they have no ideas or policies except obstruction, they should step aside and let others lead.”) And Democrats internalized the accusation. (“It makes me realize,” observed labor leader Andrew Stern in 2005, “how vibrant the Republicans are in creating twenty-first-century ideas, and how sad it is that we’re defending sixty-year-old ideas.”)

We don’t need the benefit of hindsight to grasp how silly it was to claim that the Bush-era Republican Party had risen to power on the crest of policy ideas whose time had come, or that the Democratic Party lacked an agenda of its own. The taunts about Democrats’ lacking ideas was less a serious analysis than an attempt to bully the party into cooperating with Bush’s plan to gradually privatize Social Security. (Click here to read about the history of conservatives opposing insane progressive ideas, such as women's suffrage and child labor laws.)

In reality, both parties have plenty of ideas that they would like to implement if given the political power to do so. Republicans’ policy ideas primarily involve cutting marginal tax rates and regulations. The question isn’t whether the Republican Party has any ideas. The question is whether the party has any relevant ideas.

In the days following the 2008 election, some Republicans predicted that the party would retool itself in response to reality--not just political reality but the actuality of policy challenges. “Republicans,” wrote conservative Ramesh Ponnuru in Time, “will have to devise an agenda that speaks to a country where more people feel the bite of payroll taxes than income taxes, where health-care costs eat up raises even in good times, where the length of the daily commute is a bigger irritant than are earmarks.” Nothing like that rethinking has happened or will happen.

Whatever the merits of President Obama’s agenda, it is clearly a response to objectively large problems facing the country. The administration has selected three main issues as the focus of its domestic agenda: the economic crisis, climate change, and health care reform. The issues themselves offer a stark contrast with Bush’s 2005 crusade to reshape Social Security. While sold as a response to the program’s long-term deficit, the privatization campaign was actually motivated by ideological opposition to Social Security’s redistributive role. (Bush refused Democratic offers to negotiate a fix to the program’s solvency without altering its social-insurance character.) By contrast, it is impossible to dismiss the problems Obama has chosen to address. In all three areas, the Republican Party has adopted a stance of total opposition, not merely because it disagrees with aspects of Obama’s solutions, but because it cannot come to grips with the very nature of the problems of modern American politics.

Begin with the economic crisis. The root cause of the collapse, as we all know by now, is that financial firms have grown so large and interconnected that the risks they incur can bring down the rest of the economy, forcing the government to intervene. After some initial support, the Republican response has been to denounce the financial bailout, without making any case that failing to save the financial system would have prevented a far deeper disaster.

To some extent, Republicans are simply exploiting populist anger. But the deeper problem lies in the rigidity of conservative ideology. In the most simple and pure market model, a business must be allowed to fail in order for capitalism to function. Once the government begins propping up failed firms, we have embarked upon the road to serfdom and there is no turning back.

As a general principle, this is eminently sensible. Yet it cannot accommodate the reality of a financial industry that, left to its own devices, can bring the rest of the economy down with it. David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter turned conservative apostate, recently recounted his attempt to persuade a group of young conservatives that they had to bend their principles in the face of economic calamity. As Frum recalls it, one of the conservative interlocutors replied, “Maybe it was a good thing we weren’t in power then--because our principles don’t allow us to respond to a crisis like this.”

To deal with the fallout from the financial collapse, Obama helped shepherd a stimulus package consisting of temporary spending and tax cuts. There is some debate among economists as to the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus, though economic forecasting firms have arrived at a consensus that the stimulus helped cushion the blow of the recession. But the rhetoric within the GOP is utterly disconnected from this academic and professional economic analysis. In the Republican view, the stimulus has either done nothing whatsoever to help the economy, or it has deepened the recession.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, appearing at a recent public forum, complained that the media were ignoring his party’s economic ideas. OK, replied a reporter, what are those ideas? Cantor could only pivot to his political calculation. “The big idea is to get, to get, to produce an environment where we can have job creation again,” he replied. “And see, that’s where the Obama administration’s agenda so clearly disadvantages the Democrats in this upcoming election in eleven months and advantages us.” So the “idea” is to exploit public discontent over the economy.

Republicans do have an alternative--albeit one they understandably prefer not to discuss in any detail. Senator Jim DeMint introduced a GOP stimulus plan, authored by the Heritage Foundation, that consists of making the Bush tax cuts permanent and adding onto them a series of permanent tax breaks heavily tilted toward corporations and high-income earners. It would cost more than $3 trillion--more than triple the cost of Obama’s stimulus--over the next decade, after which point its costs would continue to accrue (whereas the stimulus will end after a few years). This is some sort of ideological brain-stem reflex, not the product of any analysis of the state of the U.S. economy.

One observer dismissed DeMint’s plan thusly: “It is not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it’s only eleven pages.” Oddly enough, this observer was DeMint himself, talking up his proposal in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. On the contemporary right, it is a mark of intellectual integrity that even a massive economic cataclysm would not prompt any revising of one’s economic prescription. And, while DeMint speaks from the fringe of the party, his beliefs are by no means confined to it: 90 percent of the current Senate GOP caucus voted for his plan.

On climate change, the Republican response has been equally instructive. The largest and most strident bloc of Republican opinion remains deeply skeptical of mainstream climate science. (I don’t have the space here to defend the legitimacy of the overwhelming majority opinion among climate scientists. Suffice it to say that if you believe most scientists have fabricated evidence that carbon emissions contribute to rising global temperatures, you won’t find these five paragraphs persuasive.) Those Republican legislators who have supported any action on climate change have rallied around a plan to construct nuclear reactors, which, in addition to costing $600 billion and taking a decade to have any effect, would reduce carbon emissions by a mere 12 percent. The one Republican senator who has urged a comprehensive solution, Lindsey Graham, has found himself under severe attack from home-state Republicans and threatened by a primary challenger.

Granted, some of the GOP’s reticence stems from its alliance with energy interests--a failing that numerous Democrats share. Yet the Republican opposition to limiting carbon-dioxide emissions also closely reflects currents of right-wing thought.

A decade ago, nearly all conservatives rejected the connection between carbon emissions and climate change. Though many still do, a growing minority of right-wingers now accepts the mainstream scientific position. However, rather than proceed from that premise to some program of reduced emissions, they have feverishly devised a series of rationales for unlimited carbon use. Some have embraced fantastical geoengineering schemes--massive machines, for example, that would suck carbon out of the sky--with the rabid certainty of a science-fiction nut. Others insist that limiting U.S. emissions will do nothing to help force developing nations to do the same. Still other conservatives argue that the future world will be richer and thus able to cope with whatever calamities a hotter planet will bring.

The telling thing here is not that these arguments are provably wrong, though they are highly speculative. It’s that those conservatives who have accepted climate-change science immediately jumped to some other reason to oppose government action. These reasons are, in theory, separate logical propositions: The feasibility of creating giant machines to suck carbon out of the sky has nothing to do with the diplomatic question of whether U.S. climate action could influence China to follow suit.

Yet virtually no conservative intellectuals seem to settle, even temporarily, on the view that climate change is real and that government regulation is therefore appropriate. They cling to climate-science skepticism like a life preserver, and then, when they can’t hold on any more, they grasp immediately for a different rationale. If government intervention appears to be the answer, they must change the question.

Finally, there is health care. As on climate change, Republicans long denied that this issue constituted a problem at all. The party line held that the United States has the best health care in the world. (In reality, despite spending vastly more money per person than any other country, the United States ranks highest among 19 advanced countries in deaths by diseases amenable to medical treatment, not to mention the ongoing disaster of the uninsured.) Today, public dissatisfaction with the health care system has forced the GOP to concede, at least rhetorically, that the system is broken. The GOP response? A lot of Republican and conservative reform plans that mostly reflect the right’s embrace of the failed market system that created the health care disaster.

For numerous well-documented reasons, the market for health care does not work like the market for normal goods. The single largest problem is that tens of millions of people need more health care than they can afford, either because they’re too poor, or because they’re unhealthy and require inordinately expensive care, or both. The only way to solve this problem is to somehow make the richer and healthier people help pay for the care of the poorer and sicker.

The simplest, and arguably best, solution would be for the government to assume the role of paying for everybody’s health insurance. Since such a plan couldn’t pass Congress, Democrats have settled on a plan to subsidize health insurance for the poor and sick and to protect them from discrimination in the insurance marketplace. To make sure that the system functions effectively, they would also require everybody to get health insurance; that way, healthy people would pay into the system and subsidize the sick.

The Republican plans reject these approaches. Either they lack meaningful regulations on discriminating against the sick, or they lack a mandate to bring the healthy into the system; and none provides anything like the necessary funds to make their plans work. Far worse, the Republican plans tear away at the protections that do exist for people with high medical costs. Currently, most people get insurance through their jobs, an arrangement that pools high risks with low risks: Your 25-year-old clerk who plays shortstop for the office softball team pays the same premiums as the asthmatic 57-year-old accountant. The GOP plans usually give people individual tax credits that encourage them to drop out of employer health care and buy it on their own. That’s great for the 25-year-old, but the accountant will suddenly be in trouble.

The Republicans’ favorite reform is to let people buy insurance from any state they want. Currently, states require insurance plans to offer certain basic services--psychiatric benefits, maternity care, and so on. That creates another subsidy from the healthy to the sick--healthy people have to buy insurance that pays for all kinds of care they probably won’t need, keeping down the cost for people who do need it. If you let people buy out-of-state insurance, states will lure insurance companies by offering lax requirements, and the healthy will follow. That would allow all the healthy, inexpensive customers to have cheap plans with other inexpensive, healthy people, while sick, expensive customers would get stuck in expensive insurance plans with other sick, expensive customers.

Almost nobody takes these plans seriously as legislative proposals. They are a response to the cross-pressures of the general public’s demand that the party appear to have a positive vision on health care and the base’s demand of fealty to the ideals of the free market. So the House Republican plan would require states to establish plans to cover people with preexisting conditions, but it makes no suggestion for where the funding for such plans would come from. Likewise, the “Health Care Freedom Act,” sponsored by DeMint, is funded by repealing the financial bailout and demanding a prompt repayment. If you’re wondering what the consequences of immediately repealing the bailout might be, or where this plan would find its financing after the bailout funds ran out, you’re missing the point of the exercise. The main role of these plans is to serve as a prop for the disingenuous party talking point that Congress should defeat Obama’s plan and “start over” with “real reform.”

The quintessential moment in the health care debate came when Senator Lamar Alexander objected to Democratic attempts to weed out Medicare waste: “If you’re going to find some savings in waste, fraud, and abuse in Grandma’s Medicare,” he proclaimed, “spend it on Grandma.” Consider this as an ethical proposition: Alexander is saying that every dollar of Medicare is sacrosanct, that even those dollars he concedes provide zero public benefit must stay in the program. We live in a country where the occasional appearance of a roving charitable medical clinic will prompt thousands of desperate people to line up in parking lots for hours on end, to help mitigate their suffering. And yet, Republicans will not countenance the shift of even indisputably wasted resources to help them.

Partisan self-interest--an accurate belief that Obama’s legislative failure offers Republicans the most likely road back to power--surely accounts for some of the party’s obstinacy. But at least as powerful is the deepening hold on the GOP of anti-government ideology.

Several years ago, I wrote in these pages that the fundamental difference between economic conservatism and economic liberalism is that the former is driven by abstract philosophical beliefs in a way that the latter is not. Conservatives believe that small-government policies maximize human welfare. But they also believe that they increase human freedom. Liberals, by contrast, believe in government intervention only to the extent that it increases human welfare.

If liberals could be persuaded that tax cuts would actually increase living standards for all Americans, they would embrace them. (This is why nearly all liberals believe that some level of tax rate, be it 50 or 70 or 90 percent, becomes counterproductive.) If conservatives came to believe that tax cuts failed to increase economic growth, most would still support them anyway, because they enhance freedom. As Milton Friedman once put it, “[E]conomic freedom is an end in itself.”

For this reason, liberals tend to do a better job at devising policies that maximize human welfare. They do not do a perfect job, nor is there always a singular definition of “human welfare”--some of the thorniest dilemmas of public policy involve trade-offs over whose welfare to maximize. Still, you’re going to fare better at maximizing human welfare if that is your sole goal, rather than one of two oft-competing goals.

Conservatism can succeed at maximizing human welfare when faced with government failure or some other circumstance that naturally lends itself to ideologically congenial tools, like inflation in the 1970s. But conservatism is plagued by blindness in the face of even textbook cases of market failure.

In the graphic below, some of The New Republic’s staff have compiled a brief history of conservative opposition to social reform over the last century. It puts on display conservatism’s miserable record of predicting the outcome of various liberal reforms, in the social and political as well as economic spheres.

One of those items is a diatribe against the passage of Medicare delivered by Ronald Reagan in 1961. Earlier this year, National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg called Reagan’s address “still fresh today.” This is a strange description for even as committed a right-winger as Goldberg. In his speech, Reagan predicted that Medicare would lead to the government dictating how doctors might practice and where they’d live, and that, if it came into law, “[Y]ou and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Almost certainly, Goldberg did not mean to praise this as a prescient warning of how Medicare would unfold. The title he chose, “The Gipper on Socialized Medicine,” suggests that he viewed the speech as a prescient warning about the next step in health care reform. But this is how conservatism tends to operate: In the right-wing mind, the world we live in at any given moment can be described as the free market, the American way of life, perhaps not a perfect world but a cherished and fundamentally free one. The next advance of liberalism will always bring socialism, tyranny, a crushing burden on industry, and other horrors. The previous liberal advances that they or their predecessors greeted with such hysteria are eventually incorporated into the landscape of the free American way of life.

Everything that the 1960s right said about Medicare, the contemporary right no longer believes, while fervently believing it will all hold true of health care reform. Similarly, the hysteria of the 1970s right about clean-air regulation no longer plagues the contemporary right, but it grips conservatives when it comes to greenhouse-gas regulation. (Charles Krauthammer: Cap-and-trade “will destroy what’s left of the industrial Midwest.”) And so it goes.

Rush Limbaugh, speaking at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, boasted, “Conservatism is what it is and it is forever. It’s not something you can bend and shape and flake and form.” This is true of the general principles, but utterly false of the particulars. The specifics of the reform they oppose have been in constant flux for a century--from child-labor laws to integration to health care reform. The tone of apocalyptic hysteria at the prospect of reform remains constant.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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