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March 11, 2014 11:27 AM Why Republicans Can’t Get Serious on Policy

By Ed Kilgore

If you ask a conservative for examples of concrete Republican policy proposals that transcend mere demagoguery or empty opposition to Obama administration proposals, you’ll probably hear about Dave Camp’s tax reform initiative or the Coburn-Burr-Hatch health reform bill. But neither is going anywhere in the Republican-controlled House or among Senate Republicans as a conference. And it’s not just because Republicans have decided that getting wonky will distract from a 2014 campaign message focused on exploiting unhappiness with Obamacare.

No, as Danny Vinik explains at TNR today, Republicans have really gotten out of the habit of developing policy proposals that square with their own rhetoric or are acceptable to their own constituencies. And that will matter most if and when Republicans return to the kind of genuine power they exercised between 2001 and 2007.

Republicans have a long history of making unrealistic economic proposals, going back to the days when George H.W. Bush, running for president in 1980, dismissed Ronald Reagan’s agenda as “voodoo economics.” But things have gotten worse and, during the 2012 presidential campaign, they may have hit an all-time low.
First, there was Herman Cain and his “9-9-9 plan,” which proposed to eliminate all income, payroll, capital gains and corporate profit taxes and replace them with a nine percent tax on income, a nine percent tax on businesses and a nine percent national sales tax. Then Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, produced his own tax plan. Romney, an accomplished businessman and governor once famous for his pragmatic management style, wooed conservative voters with an outlandish set of promises: He would lower all rates by 20 percent, repeal the estate tax and make up the revenue by closing unspecified tax preferences. He also wanted to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent, repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax and eliminate the Affordable Care Act surtaxes. Romney vowed that the plan would be revenue neutral, because he’d close unspecified tax loopholes, but the Tax Policy Center concluded it would take nearly $500 billion worth of loopholes just to make it revenue neutral in 2015 alone. To put that in perspective, the Congressional Budget Office projects defense spending will be $600 billion in 2014.

You could also mention tax proposals that have never been taken seriously in Washington, but remain very popular among rank-and-file Republicans, like the various “flat tax” schemes that preceded Cain’s 9-9-9 hokum. But that just underlines Vinik’s point that workable policy proposals aren’t very common in the Republican political universe, in part because they collide with GOP talking points. That’s the main problem with the Coburn-Burr-Hatch health plan (or really every recent Republican health reform proposal), which would disrupt existing insurance arrangements as much as or more than Obamacare.

I’d go a step further than Vinik and add another problem: when Republicans do advance policy proposals their pols will actually embrace, they tend to be either vague enough at the key points to evade controversy, or are not promoted aggressively because they cannot evade controversy. Did any of the congressional Republicans who have voted for Paul Ryan’s budgets including a conversion of Medicare to a premium support system actually go out and campaign on it? If so, I certainly missed it. Even Ryan himself, as 2012 vice presidential candidate, limited his discussion of Medicare on the campaign trail to his alleged determination to protect benefits against the “cuts” provided for in Obamacare.

Add it all up and you can see why today’s Republicans tend to become unserious precisely when they are talking about serious policy issues. It’s entirely possible to divine what GOPers would do with genuine political power, but not so much from what they say about it themselves.

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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