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August 09, 2013 11:57 AM Still Point in a Turning World

By Ed Kilgore

If the LibPops are having a bit of trouble gaining acceptance of their rebranding project for conservatism, the pol with whom they appear to have a tactical alliance is having even more trouble now that his national celebrity has attracted appropriate scrutiny for his views. As you may know by now, Josh Green asked Rand Paul a few obvious questions about his budget proposals, and the junior senator from Kentucky kinda fell apart:

A recent article in the New Republic said your budget would eviscerate the departments of Energy, State, Commerce, EPA, FDA, Education, and many others. Would Americans support that?
My budget is similar to the Penny Plan, which cuts 1 percent a year for five or six years and balances the budget. Many Americans who have suffered during a recession have had to cut their spending 1 percent, and they didn’t like doing it, but they were able to do it to get their family’s finances back in order. I see no reason why government can’t cut 1 percent of its spending.
Any political consultant who saw that list would tear out his hair and say the American people would never accept it. You disagree with that conventional wisdom?
You know, the thing is, people want to say it’s extreme. But what I would say is extreme is a trillion-dollar deficit every year. I mean, that’s an extremely bad situation. I would say it’s a very reasonable proposition to say that we would only spend what comes in.

Now as the whole commentariat quickly observed, we don’t have a trillion dollar deficit this year, much less “every year.” And Paul’s supposed green-eyeshade credentials (not to mention his anti-militarist bona fides) is undermined more than a little by the fact that his budget boosts defense spending even as it shuts down large areas of federal domestic governance.

But Jonathan Chait gets to the heart of the problem:

For Rand (and Ron) Paul, the dread specter of fiscal collapse and hyperinflation is more of a generalized fact of life than something that depends on particular “numbers.” The whole political rise of the Pauls since 2008 owes a great deal to the economic crisis and the resulting spike in the deficit, which drove large numbers of people to join the freak-out bunker where the Pauls have resided all along. Of course Rand Paul isn’t going to notice the apocalypse is receding — its imminent appearance is a fixed piece of his worldview.

This probably comes as no surprise to Chait, who back in 2005 famously argued that a lack of interest in the empirical evidence for their ideologically-driven prescriptions is the hall-mark of contemporary conservatism:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Accompanying this ideological mindset is not only a habit of disregarding empirical evidence, but the belief that conservative policy prescriptions are the right answer to every question at any stage in history, regardless of contemporary circumstances. Thus lowering marginal tax rates is how you deal with both budget surpluses and deficits; tax cuts and budget cuts and deregulation are appropriate in boom-times and bust-times, and smaller domestic government is always better, at least up to some distant point where we are arguing over privatizing the sidewalks.

So Rand Paul doesn’t really care about the size of the federal budget deficit; he’d be making the same arguments and promoting the same policies in any conceivable fact situation. And in that respect, if not in others, Paul typifies what has happened to the conservative movement and the Republican Party in recent years, particularly since the election of Barack Obama as president. As I’ve argued repeatedly, what makes “constitutional conservatism”—the dominant strain in conservative activist thinking these days—so very different from its mainstream conservative antecedents is that it posits an eternal and immutable governing scheme not only as ideal but as the sole legitimate American approach to governance in all times and all places. And in most cases, “constitutional conservatives” reinforce that unconditional demand for its favored policies by claiming the authority of the Founders and of Almighty God. What are some empirical data points— or for that matter, the popular will as expressed in elections—as compared to that awesome and irrefutable claim?

So in many respects, for someone like Rand Paul, political discourse is an exercise in agitprop rather than reasoning or negotiation, and today’s talking points are entirely disposable. When you know the answer in advance to every political question, you stand as the still point in a turning world, invincible.

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.

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