Commentary Magazine


Contentions

The GOP’s Philosophical Straitjacket

One thing that jumped out at me — and perhaps (among conservatives) only me —from last night’s GOP debate was the question first posed by Byron York of the Washington Examiner to former Senator Rick Santorum. In discussing the next round of the deficit/debt reduction process, York said, “Democrats will demand that savings come from a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, maybe $3 in cuts for every $1 in higher taxes.” He went on to ask, “Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?” To which Santorum replied, “No.” Fox News’ Bret Baier then posed the question up to all eight of the GOP candidates.

“I’m going to ask a question to everyone here on the stage,” Baier said. “Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10-to-1, as Byron said, spending cuts to tax increases…. Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?”

All eight candidates raised their hand. The video can be found here.

Now on one level I understand this response. Republicans should not negotiate with themselves, and a willingness to reveal one’s demands in advance can weaken one’s position down the road. Indeed, if Republicans had signaled they would accept tax increases in the most recent debt-ceiling negotiations, we would have gotten them, thereby relieving the pressure to cut spending, which I believe is the source of the problem. I also understand that not all spending cuts are equal and that the key to solving our long-term fiscal crisis lies with reforming entitlement programs, and most especially Medicare, not targeting discretionary programs. In addition, if any of the candidates admitted he or she would raise taxes, regardless of the conditions, you can bet the other candidates would use it as a political club.

I get all that. But still.

What if what we saw on the stage last night revealed their authentic bottom line? What if there is no spending-cuts-to-tax-increases ratio that any of the GOP nominees would accept? If that were the case — and perhaps it is now the case — it would be serious indictment against the modern-day GOP mindset.

Remember, this thought experiment has to do with (a) a real spending cuts deal and (b) a compromise plan, not what one believes to be an ideal one. It is hard for me to imagine that any serious conservative who wants to limit government wouldn’t accept such a deal. The alternative, after all, would not be to reduce the size and scope of government without tax increases; it would be to keep Leviathan at its current size instead of significantly cutting it at the cost of a relatively small tax increase.

Remember this, too: in 1982 Ronald Reagan was willing to sign what was then the largest tax increase in American history (TEFRA) because he believed he’d get three dollars in cuts for one dollar in tax increase. Reagan came to regret his tax increase — but not because the ratio was wrong but because Democrats never delivered on the spending cuts. If Reagan had gotten the cuts he asked for — and the York/Baier question pre-supposes the spending cuts would be real – he would have taken that deal.

Are Republicans in 2011 saying that a deal that would be far better than one Reagan expected and agreed to is simply beyond the pale?

If so — if taxes cannot be raised under any circumstance — then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism.

Now one may respond to this analysis by saying that what we saw on the stage in Iowa last night was a show, a pose, a position one takes in the campaign but which they would jettison if they actually had the responsibility of governing. To which I would say two things: First, it’s not a good idea to get in the habit of saying one thing during a campaign while knowing you would do another when you govern; and second, there is something amiss when the political pressure in a party, any party, is so intense that it prevents a serious intellectual conversation from even taking place.

Lower taxes are a very good idea, but it is not a talisman. And if we have reached a point where Republicans running for president cannot envision (or at least admit to) any scenario in which they would raise taxes, even if as a result they could roll back the modern welfare state, then it’s time to consider loosening the philosophical straightjacket they are in. It’s not healthy for the GOP, or the nation, or even conservatism.