During the Republican primary debates in the summer of 2011, I pilloried the candidates for their united declaration that they would reject a deficit-reduction deal that had $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. In fact, I suggested that the appropriate response to such a suggestion might include gently stoning a few of them. The reaction from the right was nearly uniformly hostile: I was a “fool” even to consider such a deal, wrote one commentator. David French took to the Corner to chastise me for being insufficiently “savvy.” Americans for Tax Reform declared that “any lawmaker willing to consider a ‘grand bargain’ is poised to become another fool of history.” The main criticism of my position was that the Democrats were likely to renege on the spending cuts, a valid objection that could be overcome simply by structuring the deal in such as way as to require the spending reductions to precede the tax increases — hardly an exotic idea. But, no: Even to consider such a deal was apostasy.
Ah, the heady days of summer 2011! Here in the cold closing days of 2012, that 10-to-1 deal is looking pretty good, isn’t it? In fact, it is looking a lot better than anything House Republicans are likely to negotiate in the lead-up to the so-called fiscal cliff.
The sort of ideological rigidity on display in Iowa might have come off as principled consistency if the Republicans had shown some measure of fiscal restraint the last time they were running the show, but they failed to do so, and in doing so forfeited their traditional rhetorical edge on the subject of deficits and fiscal responsibility. As it stands, Republicans’ anti-tax rhetoric sounds like very little more than partisan bell-ringing to a great many voters, and the party leaders have made it regrettably easy for the media to portray the GOP as a hostage to Grover Norquist. The value of this as a political strategy can be seen not only in this year’s election results but also in the size of the deficit and the ever-increasing scale of federal spending. It does not work. This is not a call to “moderation,” which of course is defined in our political discourse as “doing whatever the New York Times editorial board would like.” Rather, it is a call for Republican leaders to stop being such a bunch of chumps. The partisans of the American welfare state did not build it after winning a national mandate in some glorious electoral triumph; they built it piece by piece, steadily, patiently, and remorselessly, over many decades. It probably will have to be unbuilt in much the same way. But Republicans, holding out for the big victory that never comes, fail to achieve all of the little victories along the way that eventually add up to something.
And as a result, the next deal is not going to be 10:1 in favor of spending cuts, but probably more like 4:1 in favor of taxes. And the Republicans will receive scant credit for any willingness to compromise, because they will be doing so from a position of weakness rather than one of strength.