Green Room

Let’s not talk about spending?

posted at 1:43 pm on November 18, 2011 by

Ramnesh Ponnuru responded to my views on his most recent Bloomberg column, which argued that the GOP continues to make mistakes because they misdiagnose the party’s failures as stemming from a failure to be sufficiently conservative. He generally argees with me that (excepting Iraq) GOP policy had little to do with the party’s losses in 2006 and 2008. However, he pleads innocence to my charge that he overestimates the importance of specific policy positions. On that point, it is worth revisiting the conclusion of his Bloomberg column:

Meanwhile, the real mistakes of the Bush years keep being made. Republicans had nothing to say about wage stagnation then and are saying nothing about it now. The real cost of Republicans’ fixation on ideological purity is that it distracts them from their real problems, and the nation’s.

I think it was a fair reading that Ponnuru was suggesting at least one of the GOP’s “real mistakes” was and is that it had and has nothing to say on issues like wage stagnation. And if Ponnuru agrees GOP’s performance in 2006 and 2008 had little to do with those sorts of issues, I think it was fair to conclude he was overestimating the magnitude of the GOP’s “real mistakes.” However, taking Ponnuru’s response at face value, if I misread the original column, what is his real beef with the “ideological purity” segment of the party?

At the risk of over-simplifying, perhaps Ponnuru is really saying, “Republicans, dial down the emphasis on restraining popular government spending.”

After all, at the outset of his original Bloomberg column, Ponnuru criticizes GOP leadership for claiming the party’s electoral failures were related to insufficient fiscal discipline, even though he also concedes that “Bush-era Republicans did spend too much.” In his response, Ponnuru mentions Republicans’ popular tax policy as a contrast.

At Bloomberg, he claims GOP primary candidates “have, to an unusual extent, showcased unpopular ideas that have no chance of going anywhere, such as abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency.” It’s far from clear to me that the candidates have been showcasing such ideas to an unusual extent. Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann want to eliminate the EPA; Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have spoken of replacing it with something better; Rick Perry does not want to eliminate it, nor does Mitt Romney (perhaps Ponnuru was reading the hype at the NYT). Moreover, GOP platforms have advocated eliminating departments and agencies for the better part of 30 years; I cannot recall a single election where those positions were a major voting issue.

On the other hand, I can recall many elections where Democratic attacks on entitlement reform have been an issue, so it might be worth asking how far the “let’s be more quiet about popular spending programs” principle might extend. In May, Ponnuru argued the House GOP should not have backed the budget and Medicare reforms put forth by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, although he called that support both brave and right. He argued House Republicans “should have recruited presidential candidates to raise the issue in 2012, when they will have a megaphone as big as President Barack Obama’s.” But if the GOP candidates should not be proposing eliminating the EPA, why should they be proposing major reforms of Social Security and Medicare? Is serious entitlement reform going anywhere until the GOP controls the presidency, House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate?

As a matter of raw politics, Ponnuru may be entirely correct about avoiding spending issues. There is an argument for simply waiting until the debt bomb explodes. However, it is unfair to then also argue “[t]he real cost of Republicans’ fixation on ideological purity is that it distracts them from their real problems, and the nation’s.” The ideological purity crowd’s emphasis on unsustainable government spending is not a distraction from the nation’s real problems, but a recognition of them. Indeed, one of the nation’s real problems is the degree to which the public wants to avoid unpopular, inevitable budgetary choices.

Update: Ponnuru responds again, but he’s on a cruise, so I’ll keep my reply short. In my initial response, consistent with my prior writing (and my point about partisan vs. independent voting behavior), I actively agreed that GOP policy (except Iraq) had little effect on the outcome in 2006 and 2008, so it’s not a concession on my part. However, it’s debatable whether it’s the prevailing view that the GOP lost by failing to be more conservative. When discussing Ponnuru’s quotes of current GOP leadership on that point, perhaps I should have raised the very real possibility of lip service.

Ponnuru suggests, based on exit polling, that the GOP “platform promise to end the Department of Education did seem to hurt in 1996,” compared to 2000, when Bush showily ditched the plank. Bush certainly did much better than Dole with those who named education as the top issue. We then got stuck with Ted Kennedy’s version of NCLB. In return, Kerry ’04 got about the same share as Clinton ’96 among those who prioritized education.

Ponnuru asks whether I think entitlement reform is more likely in the next 5-15 years than abolishing the EPA. Based on current polling, I think it’s most likely that neither will happen until the debt bomb explodes, at which point we’ll get entitlement reform and a radically restructured, shrunken EPA. I also think that Ponnuru may be overestimating the degree to which voters take political hyperbole seriously.

Finally, Ponnuru notes that his prior column on the Ryan Medicare reforms was addressing a purely tactical question. Indeed. But his current argument certainly seems to link the development of a policy agenda to political tactics and electoral outcomes, which is why I asked how far the argument extends. I am heartened that he still backs entitlement reform as an issue in 2012, but I presume he knows that however much emphasis or de-emphasis he might give it: the Dems will likely demagogue the issue and it will remain a more politically salient issue than education or the environment. Thus, maintaining that it’s “much more worth bringing up in a presidential campaign” puts Ponnuru de facto closer to the purists than he might like.

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