Political Animal


February 18, 2013 2:10 PM First Steps Out of Denial: Ponnuru

By Ed Kilgore

After months of phony self-examination and ersatz “rebranding” and “reform” noise among conservatives who are determined to go for the capillaries and protect their recent conquest of the GOP, there are finally a couple of brief statements from credible conservatives that show the first steps away from denial.

The first is from Ramesh Ponnuru, already a semi-heretic for his persistent criticism of the deflationary monetary policy impulses of Republicans during and after the Great Recession. But in a New York Times op-ed meditating on Reagan Worship, Ponnuru offers a more comprehensive criticism of GOP economic thinking that gets to the root of the problem:

Today’s Republicans are very good at tending the fire of Ronald Reagan’s memory but not nearly as good at learning from his successes. They slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones. It’s because Republicans have not moved on from that time that Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, in their responses to the State of the Union address last week, offered so few new ideas.

I will observe that the complaint about ideologues worshiping the dead letter of past accomplishments instead of emulating the spirit that created them was a very common theme among the international wave of center-left “reformers” who won power in the 1990s, from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair to Gerhardt Schroeder and many others. It’s a less immediately compelling perspective on the Right, where the idea of fixed and permanent “solutions” to every problem is deeply rooted, but it still offers a very different answer to the “What Would Reagan Do?” questions that inevitable arise among conservatives.

When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan’s day. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to bring the top rate down still further, to 25 percent.
A Republican Party attentive to today’s problems rather than yesterday’s would work to lighten the burden of the payroll tax, not just the income tax. An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered. Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent top tax rate….
Conservative views of monetary policy are also stuck in the late 1970s. From 1979 to 1981, inflation hit double digits three years in a row. Tighter money was the answer. To judge from the rhetoric of most Republican politicians, you would think we were again suffering from galloping inflation. The average annual inflation rate over the last five years has been just 2 percent. You would have to go back a long time to find the last period of similarly low inflation. Today nominal spending — the total amount of dollars circulating in the economy both for consumption and investment — has fallen well below its path before the financial crisis and the recession. That’s the reverse of the pattern of the late 1970s.

Both these observations are common among liberals, but it’s refreshing to hear them from a senior editor of National Review. Ponnuru’s op-ed is pretty light on an alternative economics agenda for the GOP—he mentions a focus on lightening the payroll tax burden; a more balanced monetary policy; and attacks on software patents as innovation inhibitors. But it’s a lot more interesting than the warmed-over stuff we’ve been hearing from Republican politicians, who seem to think returning to a pale version of the immigration policies of George W. Bush is enough “rethinking” for now and maybe ever.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 18, 2013 2:35 PM:


    Looks like Ramesh Ponnuru finally got a shot of Vitamin K (Krugman).

    And how long before the Conservatards turn on him, and call his musings, "Ramesh Noodles" - kind of tasty when it was red hot, but now that his writing's a colder blue, it's a slimy nutritionless mess.

  • somethingblue on February 18, 2013 2:52 PM:

    I think this is overoptimistic. A halfway-sane conservative is a contradiction in terms, and I don't mean that (only) in a snarky way. Conservatism today means: 1) tax cuts for very rich people; 2) as somebody at Balloon Juice once put it, unflinching opposition to whatever liberals/Obama are in favor of today, updated daily. That's it. You say that Ponnuru is "already a semi-heretic." If he ever really gets within hailing distance of the reality-based community, he'll just be deleted from the Politburo photos, like Bruce Bartlett. He may continue to think of himself as a conservative, but no one else will. You can be a halfway-sane Republican (though not an elected one for very long), but you cannot be a halfway-sane conservative. A wheelbarrow with four wheels is not a wheelbarrow any more.

  • advocatethis on February 18, 2013 2:52 PM:

    If Ponnuru keeps this up, he'll be treated by the right as Andrew Sullivan has been for the last seven or eight years.

    What won't happen, though, is that conservatives will not heed what he is saying.

  • Joe Friday on February 18, 2013 3:41 PM:

    Ponnuru: "Today's Republicans are very good at tending the fire of Ronald Reagan's memory but not nearly as good at learning from his successes. They slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges"

    This fundamentally ignores the forest for the trees.

    Sure, Reagan was POLITICALLY successful, but his policies were NOT economically successful (except for the Rich & Corporate). The RightWing still refuses to recognize this reality.

    The Standard of Living of the vast overwhelming majority of American workers went BACKWARDS during Reagan's two terms. Unemployment rose, Poverty rose, and the federal deficits & debt exploded.

  • boatboy_srq on February 18, 2013 3:50 PM:

    In other words, Ponnuru just Frum'd himself.

  • Cugel on February 18, 2013 7:24 PM:

    I see no reason why this is "good news." The GOP are hopeless reactionary racists and they will always remain hopeless reactionaries and probably racists.

    Nothing good can ever come from their party. The nation can only move forward by shoving them aside like FDR did in 1933. Their reaction to this marginalization is always the same, hysteria and hyperventilated cries of "treason" or "socialism!"

    The slightest signs of sanity in the GOP is thus a BAD thing, not a good thing.

    When you have a drunk threatening to take the wheel you have to keep him from driving the car, not sober him up a little bit and then hand him the keys!

  • paul on February 18, 2013 8:48 PM:

    And you know what happens when the payroll tax stops being a drag on economic performance (say by lowering the wage cap instead of raising it)? There's a big emergency and we have to shove all the poor seniors out on the ice so we can keep paying for the DoD and a 38% top marginal rate.

  • Robert Waldmann on February 19, 2013 7:25 AM:

    Good post. I must note, how even, that Ponneru is long about history. He must know that his claim that pre Reagan tax ratea were a barrier to growth is un supporter by evidence (believe me -- my student Santo Milasi has looked at all the data on top marginal ratea which has benen collected -- also the Congressional Research Service). He denounces the current huge play roll tax. Un Who signed the bill which increased it ? He carefully USIS past tenses to suggest that over his 8 years Reagan cut taxes for all (he did in 2001) when over all Reagan raised i come plus payroll taxes on low incomes.

    He ascribes monetari policy to Reagan, ignorino Fed independence, the fact that Carter appointed Volcker (and so is the President responsible for the end of modera tele high inflation while Ford and Nixon are the Presidents responsible for the inflation). Also note that Reagan aids regularly base ed Volcker blaming him (correctly) for the severe recession. Here I note that I then agreed and still agree with Reagan not Volcker on early 80s monetary policy.

    Yespica, you are right, Ponneru is extraordinarily willing to face reality compared to other prominent Republicans. He also presenta a fantasy world based in part on what must be deliberately misleading carefully parasing. That this is a step towards honesty and sanity shows how appalling the GOP is.

  • Gret on February 19, 2013 5:39 PM:

    Wow very nice good sptoso ncie grat!