Many progressives have been thanking our lucky stars for years now that conservatives have failed time and again to make a “Grand Bargain” with the President to enact brutal cuts to earned benefit programs, particularly at a time of economic malaise and record income inequality.
The Republican Party was set up with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: enact unpopular cuts to highly popular programs in a bipartisan fashion, then blame the Democratic president for generations to come for the resulting economic damage. It was too good to be true, and many of us were not-so-secretly overjoyed to see the Tea Party crowd scuttle these deals time and time again.
Jonathan Chait lays the blame for the failure of the Republican Party to seize their golden opportunity on demography and the nature of their voting base:
Here is another thing that makes the Republican spurning of Obama so mindless. Proposals to cut Social Security tend to phase in slowly over time, to insulate them from political backlash. As more and more Baby Boomers start receiving benefits, more and more benefits grow politically untouchable. And that means, as time goes on, a greater and greater share of the eventual solution to the Social Security funding gap will come from tax hikes — which are, in any case, more popular than benefit cuts.
The Republican Party constructed a geriatric trap for itself. Just how it will escape is hard to see. It is a small-government party whose base is wedded to the programs that constitute a large and growing share of government. The inability to touch the benefits of any old person, in combination with its still-extant support for defense and fanatical opposition to tax hikes in any form, have driven Republicans to propose massive cuts to the small share of government that benefits struggling workers. This priority has, in turn, saddled the GOP with the (correct) image of hostility toward the unfortunate.
Frum, interestingly, identifies another side effect of the geriatric trap: It infuses the party and its public spokesmen with mournful sensibility. “It is overwhelmingly tempting to people contemplating mortality,” he writes, “to infer that what holds true for them must also hold true for the nation.” Republicans may one day in the future look back with uncomprehending regret on their refusal to strike a fiscal deal with the rare figure who was eager to compromise with them and able to deliver liberal support. But a party fixated on visions of imminent mortality is not very suited to thinking about the future.
The easiest way for the Republican Party to escape would simply be to abandon its pretense of fiscal austerity—it is, after all, a kabuki show that closes up whenever a Republican is president—and wholly embrace becoming a party of elderly voters driven by cultural resentment. The GOP could, in effect, treat cuts to Social Security and Medicare as equally sacrosanct with cuts to the military, and then suggest that literally everything else in the budget be cut first. If they can get a Democratic president to go along with it, then so much the better for them.
Some Republicans are doing that already, of course. But the challenge for conservatives is that a new generation of lawmakers and activists grew up actually believing the Objectivist rhetoric of fiscal austerity and intend to see it enacted. Not only are Republicans unlikely to start treating spending on retirees as a sacred cow, they’re even moving away from protecting military spending as well.
GOP leadership knows that in the medium-term it has to reach out to younger voters and voters of color. But their base rejects out-of-hand any of the policy changes that would be required to even begin to do that. In the short-term conservatives could make gains by adding Social Security and Medicare to their list of sacred cows, and watch Democrats tie themselves into foolish knots trying to be “fiscally responsible”, but their new generation of hyper-conservative activists won’t let them.
So instead the GOP just plods along incoherently, moving opportunistically to capitalize on fear and cultural prejudice, but lacking in a broader strategic vision for its future. It’s so hostage to its own extremism and demographic traps that it can’t even take advantage of an amazing opportunity to enact their policy agenda, even when a Democratic president offers it to them on a silver platter.
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