Rand Paul: Republicans should apologize to Obama for pretending that they cared about spending

This is cute, but no one owes apologies to Obama.

Nor, contra Paul, do any Republicans owe apologies for feeling obliged to spend during a once-in-a-century pandemic in which millions have been forced into unemployment by safety-driven government lockdowns.

But you know what I will take an apology for? I’ll accept one for running gigantic deficits during a sustained pre-pandemic economic boom with a Republican president in office, Republicans in control of the Senate, and, for two years, Republicans in charge of the House. That’s the spending binge that proved that the tea party was a fraud to its core, not the exorbitant emergency relief effort that Congress is now engaged in.

What we’re seeing from Paul here, as we’ve seen from Ted Cruz lately, is a bit of early positioning by tea-party favorites to steer a post-Trump GOP back towards nominal fiscal conservatism if/when you-know-who gets thumped in November. Never Trumpers are frequently accused of believing that all they need to do is get rid of Trump this fall and the party will magically revert to what it was before he announced his candidacy in 2015. But in my experience that couldn’t be more wrong. It’s opportunistic Trump-hugging cronies like Paul who think they’re one election away from relevance again.

Never Trumpers, in contrast, are the righties who are most thoroughly disillusioned about what they thought the GOP stood for. Trump’s presidency isn’t an interregnum between periods of Reaganism in their view, it’s an expose that busted the myth that Republican politicians or voters ever cared much about smaller government or “constitutional conservatism” or, you know, basic ethics. Stuart Stevens, a former GOP strategist and now a member of the Lincoln Project, has a book out this week about his own disillusionment with the party titled “It Was All a Lie.” You can’t do better than that as a summary of the Never Trump verdict on the pre-Trump GOP.

It was all a lie. Hose it down with kerosene and light a match.

Never Trumpers have walked away. Paul and Cruz are sticking around either because they haven’t figured out yet that it was all a lie or, more likely, because they still harbor presidential ambitions and think Tea Party 2.0 is their likeliest path to fulfillment.

Ross Douthat wrote a few days ago about the fork in the road the party will face if Trump goes down on Election Day. There are more than two tines to that fork. There’s Tea Party 2.0; there’s special-interest establishment Republicanism; there’s nationalism and its assortment of white identity politics; and there’s something we’ll call “post-Reaganism,” which makes exceptions to fiscal conservative orthodoxy about spending and taxes in order to benefit middle-class families. Oh, and there’s also Trumpism: Just because Trump is no longer president doesn’t mean his cult of personality is certain to vanish. He could still exert influence from a remove. Tea Party 2.0 is destined to be a strong faction not because any of its adherents particularly care about small government but because the modern GOP’s true credo, being against what Democrats are for, is apt to be most directly inflamed by Biden’s domestic agenda. We’ll be spending a fortune with Bernie and Warren whispering in his ear. Ergo spending will be bad again.

But in truth, fiscal policy within the party will be beside the point going forward just as it was in the past. The current GOP is foremost a party of culture war; whichever faction emerges as dominant will have to be at least as passionate about prosecuting that culture war as it is about the rest of its agenda. Cruz seems to understand that. He’s been chattier lately about federal spending because of the opportunity presented by the coronavirus relief negotiations, but watch him on Twitter and in his interviews and you’ll find that he doesn’t dwell on evangelizing about debt and deficits. Most of his rhetoric is devoted to highlighting the excesses of the left. What was it he held a hearing on this week? Was it the potential effects of coronavirus-related debt on America’s ability to meet its entitlement obligations, starting with Medicare? Or was it Antifa?

Cruz knows what Republicans care about. Prove that you’re willing to prosecute the culture war and they’ll give you a wide berth on whichever fiscal policy you wish to pursue. (That’s a core lesson of Trump’s ascendance, no?) He’ll have his hands full with the nationalists on cultural matters and with the post-Reaganists on fiscal matters. I wish him luck. The Never Trumpers will be long gone.