Are you wondering what’s going on with fiscal cliff negotiations? I mean, most mass media talk about it as a scary horrible thing that Washington is having trouble negotiating because Obama might be socialist and the Republicans are protecting taxpayers. Whatever.
a word about the current state of budget “negotiations.”
Why the scare quotes? Because these aren’t normal negotiations in which each side presents specific proposals, and horse-trading proceeds until the two sides converge. By all accounts, Republicans have, so far, offered almost no specifics. They claim that they’re willing to raise $800 billion in revenue by closing loopholes, but they refuse to specify which loopholes they would close; they are demanding large cuts in spending, but the specific cuts they have been willing to lay out wouldn’t come close to delivering the savings they demand.
It’s a very peculiar situation. In effect, Republicans are saying to President Obama, “Come up with something that will make us happy.” He is, understandably, not willing to play that game. And so the talks are stuck.
Why won’t the Republicans get specific? Because they don’t know how. The truth is that, when it comes to spending, they’ve been faking it all along — not just in this election, but for decades. Which brings me to the nature of the current G.O.P. crisis.
Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. From the beginning, however, these ideologues have had a big problem: The programs they want to kill are very popular. Americans may nod their heads when you attack big government in the abstract, but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. So what’s a radical to do?
Reminiscent of something? Maybe the Romney campaign? The Republican Party is about to become post-supply-side, and less hung up on social issues, or it will wither away. For years it has relied on the idea that it can rely on scaring easily frightened white people, and win elections. Not so much anymore.
One is “starve the beast,” the idea of using tax cuts to reduce government revenue, then using the resulting lack of funds to force cuts in popular social programs. Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug.
Arguably more important in conservative thinking, however, was the notion that the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”
But it didn’t work out that way. Democrats didn’t roll over, and the things for which Democrats stand for have suddenly become more popular while the Republicans have completely run out of not only specifics, but any kind of ideas at all. The Romney campaign was set up to basically point to Obama and say, “f*ck this guy”. That’s not a winning strategy.
And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.
So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.
It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.
Our best hope is that business interests will use their influence to limit the damage. But the odds are that the next few years will be very, very ugly.
People have been predicting the Republican Party re-orientation back to a reasonable political actor for years now, but you have to reach rockbottom before you admit you have a problem and get help. Get help, people. We like good ideas.
While you’re at it, read this set of charts from the Atlantic that show a statistical round-up of income inequality. It’ll make you angry going into the weekend. HAPPY WEEKEND.