At the Republican National Committee’s annual meeting in January, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana called Republicans the “stupid party.” At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he suggested Republicans were a party of green-eyeshade types, “obsessing” over “zeroes on the budget spreadsheet.” If you put together Jindal’s double-barreled critique, you get a GOP that apparently is too often a party of stupid accountants.
There is some evidence of this. Many Washington Republicans claim to want a balanced budget, however they can get it. And they are going about it in more or less the worst possible way. The House Republican budget put forth last week did contain many good ideas from Paul Ryan’s policy shop — such as tax reform, Medicare premium support, and Medicaid block-granting — that could boost economic growth while reducing the federal government’s long-term liabilities, but to some extent it actually delays their implementation.
But balancing the budget in ten years is a dubious fiscal goal. It isn’t necessary to rush to balance so soon in order to reduce the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio steadily. Further, the U.S. almost certainly isn’t on the verge of an EU-like debt crisis — it currently has much higher growth and much lower borrowing costs than troubled European countries such as Greece. Economist John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute calls comparisons between the U.S. and the Hellenic Republic “hyperbolic” and “ridiculous.”
Anyway, the combination of an arbitrary goal for a balanced budget and the delay of Ryan’s smart Medicare reform makes all sorts of unwelcome budgetary contortions inevitable. For instance, the House’s budget blueprint strips away the expanded programs in Obamacare, but keeps the revenues meant to pay for them (and all the rest of the president’s tax hikes, too). Further, the House budget’s cuts nondefense discretionary spending (including important basic-research programs) by another $250 billion over the next ten years, on top of earlier budget caps and sequestration that already leave it 30 percent lower than its average for the past half-century. And despite the budget’s reversing most of sequestration’s defense cuts, military spending would still dip below where it was before 9/11.
Ryan dutifully, even enthusiastically, defended the House budget in his CPAC speech. Indeed, Jindal’s comments — he spoke after Ryan — were interpreted by some as a not-so-subtle shot at Ryan, a potential rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But Ryan also seemed to concede the point that austerity for its own sake is not much of a message.
He made a broader argument, to the effect that, yes, the House budget is intended to avoid a debt-fueled financial crisis. But, Ryan added, it’s also about reducing the size of government so that civil society can have the space it needs to create more localized, bespoke solutions to America’s problems. This argument, still embryonic within the GOP, should be given room and oxygen by policymakers.
Marco Rubio also made an effort at CPAC to nudge the party from its fiscal fixation. In his speech, he assessed 2013 America from the perspective of middle-income families under siege from a stagnant economy, globalization, technology-driven unemployment, and the rising cost of education and health care. Rubio didn’t offer a 57-point plan, but his focus on familial financial stress and income mobility is certainly a start.
It’s about time: A new survey by GOP polling firm McLaughlin & Associates found that 38 percent of Americans name the “economy and jobs” as their most important issue, versus 20 percent who give the nod to “deficit and debt.”
Thankfully, Ryan’s and Rubio’s speeches are some evidence that Republicans are slowly edging away from a GAAP approach to governance. The Stupid Party may finally be wising up.
— James Pethokoukis, a columnist, blogs for the American Enterprise Institute.