Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WOULD BARRY GOLDWATER BE PROUD?....Since today is his birthday, it's only appropriate for me to agree with something Matt Yglesias writes this afternoon. Despite the rise of movement conservatism since 1964, the eventual victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the conservative hegemony of recent years, what have conservatives actually accomplished in that time?

The largest Johnson-era anti-poverty program, Medicaid, is still with us, as is Medicare for senior citizens, which has only grown more generous (most recently, via a bill passed almost exclusively with Republican votes) since it's creation. Social Security, the centerpiece of the New Deal welfare state, is likewise more generous than it was in 1964. The federal government plays a larger role in funding education than it did in 1964 (and, again, it's role has gotten even larger under the Bush-DeLay regime). Abortion, illegal in 1964, is now legal, anti-sodomy laws were eliminated in the recent past, and today we have gay and lesbian couples getting married in Massacusetts, while civil unions, surely a proposal more liberal than anything Johnson dreamed of, have become the moderate plan.

I don't mean to belittle the danger of the modern conservative agenda, but at the same time Matt is right: it bears asking just what the rising tide of conservatism over the past quarter century has actually accomplished for their cause. Sure, there was welfare reform in 1996 signed into law by a Democrat. But aside from some nibbling around at the fringes, what else?

Have they eliminated any departments of the federal government? No. Cut back entitlement programs? No. Increased the size of the military? No. Reduced the size of government? No. Outlawed abortion? Restricted gay rights? Brought back prayer in schools? No, no, and no. In fact, just the opposite for most of these things.

Among major conservative causes, then, the only thing left is tax cuts which, serendipitously, have become to modern conservatives what the New Deal was to FDR: an ingenious way of bringing together an otherwise unlikely coalition of political bedfellows. The three main pillars of today's Republican party may not agree on much else, but they can all find common ground on taxes:

  • Big corporations like tax cuts because it improves their bottom line.

  • Rich people like tax cuts because they pay lots of taxes.

  • "Middle America" likes tax cuts even though they don't pay much in income taxes and no one ever suggests cutting payroll taxes because they're convinced their taxes are shipped directly to inner city welfare queens and they want it stopped.

However, this poses an enormous danger to modern conservatives. After all, they've taken tax cuts about as far as they can, and there's not much of anything else holding them all together especially now that Iraq is causing cracks in their normally solid dedication to building up the military. What will they do for an encore?

UPDATE: Nathan Newman says conservatives have done more harm than I'm giving them credit for. Point taken: there's no question that they've done some damage in the areas of (for example) labor rights and environmental protections. However, although they've certainly managed to pass some laws that hurt liberal causes, I'll stand by my point that conservatives have made very little progress in their major agenda areas since 1980.

Kevin Drum 6:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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