One of the more irksome habits of liberal pundits this election cycle is Trump-strapping: using the indefensibility of Donald Trump to retroactively bootstrap their way into winning other arguments from the past that they couldn’t win at the time without Trump’s help.
Paul Krugman has probably retired the prize for the longest reach back in time, with a column last month claiming that the Trump nomination was the inevitable result of . . . Ronald Reagan’s adopting supply-side arguments for tax cuts in 1980:
What I want to talk about is when, exactly, the GOP went over the edge. Obviously it didn’t happen all at once. But I think the real watershed came in 1980–81, when supply-side economics became the party’s official doctrine.
Former Daily Kos writer and Planned Parenthood communications manager Kaili Joy Gray may win the award for the most implausible stretch by rehashing 2002 and 2004 campaign ads:
Donald Trump is what happens when your party normalizes attacks on veterans like Max Cleland and John Kerry. He's simply the next step.
— Kaili Joy Gray (@KailiJoy) July 31, 2016
Comes now Jonathan Chait, who wants to use Trump to revise the history of the 2009 stimulus bill fight in support of his thesis that nobody could ever have a principled reason for opposing colossal government spending initiatives. There’s nothing liberal pundits love more than an argument that allows them to assume out of existence all contrary ideas and replace them with invidious motivations. In a column entitled “Trump Proves Republican Obama Hate Was Never About Obama’s Ideas,” Chait rewrites the past:
The overwhelming majority of Republican voters found Obama’s stimulus unacceptable for reasons that had nothing to do with its merits. Indeed, the same can be said of a large share of Obama’s entire domestic agenda, against which Republicans have spent eight years in a frenzy of opposition. . . . What animated Republican voters was a fear of cultural change. Their anti-statism was confined to programs that seemed to benefit people other than themselves. Racial resentment and ethnocentrism, not passion for limited government, drove the conservative base. . . . Trump has not only disproven the conservative movement’s theory of its own base. He’s disproven its history of the Obama presidency.
Now, to start with, Chait is mixing and matching here between Republican politicians and Republican voters; the former sometimes pursue Beltway-specific motivations, and the latter are hardly monolithic and always include a fair number of people who are a lot less informed or consistent over time than the typical policymaker. It is true that voters on both sides of the aisle tend toward tribalism that makes them willing to accept their own side’s doing things they loudly oppose on the other side. Think of how little campus and street protest we’ve seen against Obama’s wars, drone strikes, and failure to close Guantanamo, after volcanic broad-brush anger from Democrats against Bush’s war and detention policy; those same voters are now lining up to back Iraq War supporter Hillary Clinton.
Or consider how Democratic voters now consider anyone who opposes same-sex marriage to be a bigot beyond the pale of civilized society. Yet they support President Obama, who took that position until 2012, and Hillary, who took it until 2013. There’s a whole range of issues from privacy to free trade to deficits where polls often show that the voters in the party out of power tend to grow more skeptical. When Democrats change their minds or compromise out of political calculation, this is taken merely as a sign of the wickedness of an America that bullies them into these positions; when Republicans do so, it’s seen as a sign that they don’t believe in their stated ideas and are driven by nefarious ulterior motives.
The “Trump retroactively proves we were right about all Republicans!” columns ignore the extraordinarily anomalous conditions that were necessary for Trump to win the nomination while 60 percent of the voters (in contested states) voted against him and the overwhelming majority of Republican officials opposed him, many of them openly and vigorously. Without rehashing the entire primary here, Trump benefited from three interlocking dynamics: divided opposition that prevented anti-Trump voters from coalescing behind a single alternative; a celebrity candidate with huge name recognition and $2 billion in free media advantages over his rivals; and Republican voters having lost faith in their leaders’ ability to accomplish the things they promise. There’s plenty of room to argue over what Trump means to his supporters, some of whom quite clearly are driven by racial resentments and animosities, but they remain a minority of the party, and a relatively powerless one when not wedded to the unique conditions of the 2016 presidential primary.
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Chait’s retelling of history is risible. For example, he writes:
Conservatives did not believe that fiscal stimulus can’t help a depressed economy until Obama took office. When the economy showed signs of sputtering in early 2008, Congress passed a fiscal stimulus by overwhelming margins (81–16 in the Senate, 380–34 in the House).
Does anyone who lived through the period from 1980 to 2008 really think government spending, for its own sake, was popular among Republican voters or praised by Republican politicians? Herein lies the danger of lacking political courage: If you compromise once with Democrats on a comparatively small thing, they will argue that you’ve conceded the principle forever. The 2009 stimulus was different from the 2008 stimulus: It was five times the size of the previous package, more heavily weighted to spending than tax relief, and more than the total appropriated to fight the Iraq War up to that date; plus it was larded up with goodies for Democratic interest groups. It would have been unusual for the explosion in federal spending in 2009 to attract no Republican criticism.
Does anyone who lived through the period from 1980 to 2008 really think government spending, for its own sake, was popular among Republican voters or praised by Republican politicians?
And the 2008 stimulus package was not a Republican idea. In addition to the small core of conservatives who voted against the 2008 stimulus, there were many Republicans who had fought against a larger one (Mitch McConnell led a controversial filibuster) before cutting the deal heading into an election season in which Democrats pounded them on the issue. Republicans compromised in 2008 and got nothing in return but a worse economy and worse political prospects — and Chait chastises them for concluding that this had been a bad idea!
It’s true, of course, that there was an opportunistic partisan element in GOP turnabout on the stimulus. In 2008, the party was in power in the White House and concerned about being blamed for an economic downturn unless it “did something,” and with Democrats controlling Congress, the menu of things that could be done was limited. In 2009, the party understood that if the economy staged a booming recovery, Obama would get all the credit anyway, so there was nothing to be gained by joining him. But given the budget-busting size and content of the 2009 package, it would probably have drawn a fair amount of opposition from Republicans even if you believed that their grudging support of the 2008 stimulus was sincere.
We see a similar story can be found on the health-care front, where Chait repeats the canard that Obamacare was somehow a GOP-friendly policy: “Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008 advocating what became Obamacare — regulated exchanges with subsidies and an individual mandate — and faced hardly any blowback from his base.” Of course, Romney lost the nomination in 2008, and while some quarters of the Right did criticize him over teaming with Democrats to pass Romneycare at the time (I know I did), the hot-button issues in that race were the Iraq War and immigration.
The reality is that health care was a neglected issue in Republican intra-party debates from the mid 1960s until 2009, because most Republicans didn’t think the issue warranted major federal legislation and didn’t think there was a real threat of such legislation’s passing. The main exception was during the Hillarycare debate of 1993–94; even then, most of the proposals that included mandates and the like were either transparently insincere “me toos” from Capitol Hill Republicans looking for a rhetorical sop to stop a bigger Democratic plan, or niche think-tank papers such as those produced by the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler that almost nobody read. There’s no evidence that Republican voters spent much time thinking about any of these proposals, much less endorsing them, before 2009.
When they were confronted with a sudden legislative juggernaut aiming to massively overhaul the whole system, in the aftermath of an economic crash and a battery of expensive and unfair bailouts, they naturally put more thought into the issue. Chait seems not even to have considered the idea that the widespread loss of faith in major institutions following the 2008 crash might have influenced the thinking of either Republican voters or politicians. Are we really surprised that “compassionate conservatism” went out of favor with Republicans between 2005 and 2009, and that the main reason for this might be due to someone other than Barack Obama?
Chait likewise claims that nobody on the right minded John McCain’s cap-and-trade position in 2008, but aside from ignoring the fact that McCain was hardly beloved by the GOP base, he offers no reason to believe that cap-and-trade was actually popular with Republicans or their voters at the time. Polls showed that Republicans were skeptical of “global warming.” An April 2008 Pew poll, for example, found that less than half of all Republicans believed in “global warming” theory, that the partisan divide on the issue was growing, and that GOP voters rated action on the issue a lower priority than any other issue polled. Al Gore’s advocacy on the issue was already a popular punchline on the right when An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, so it seems a stretch to blame Gore’s unpopularity with Republicans on “ethnocentrism.” As with the issue of health care, Republican politicians in the hostile political climate of 2006–08 tended to play defense on cap-and-trade, as exemplified by Marco Rubio’s talking like a moderate on the issue in 2008 while killing Charlie Crist’s proposal to impose cap-and-trade in Florida.
Moreover, as in 1993, the GOP’s increasing criticism of government growth in the domestic arena in 2009 was driven as well by the fact that foreign policy was becoming a less dominant issue. The Cold War held together a lot of disparate factions on the right; after 9/11, so did the global War on Terror. Domestic policy reclaimed the forefront just as Democrats took the White House, so it was logical to expect domestic issues would receive more attention. Republican voters had shifted from grumbling to open revolt at George H. W. Bush’s tax-hike cave-in when the Gulf War ended and the economy went south; so, too, Republican politicians came out of the 2006 and 2008 elections a lot more leery of being arm-twisted by someone like Tom DeLay into voting for things they didn’t like just to buy swing-voter support for the war effort.
Republicans have much soul-searching and infighting to do after the Trump nomination, and surely part of that debate will be facing up to the fact that the party includes factions that are not particularly committed to smaller government. But if a President Hillary or a President John Edwards had proposed a gigantic stimulus, a federal takeover of health care, a cap-and-trade scheme, and other Obama initiatives, would Republicans have greeted them with candy and flowers? If you don’t believe so, you probably shouldn’t let Jonathan Chait Trump-strap his way into persuading you.
— Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and an NRO contributing columnist.