Brief Note on Coalition Management

You’ve probably encountered the three-legged stool model of the conservative coalition, i.e., the notion that the modern conservative movement, and by extension the GOP as its chief political vehicle, unites social conservatives, supply-siders, and hawks. As a general rule, the constituent elements of this coalition “stay in their lane.” Supply-siders and hawks defer to social conservatives on “social issues,” narrowly defined, while social conservatives and hawks defer to supply-siders on “economic issues,” and in particular on tax policy. But what happens when conservatives who primarily identify as supply-siders or hawks start to see the commitments of social conservatives as damaging to the broader coalition? Or when conservatives who identify primarily as social conservatives see supply-siders as the problem? You start to see turf wars.

To be sure, it has long been a commonplace for supply-siders to lament what they see as the excessive influence of social conservatives, particularly among those in the donor class. What hasn’t generally happened, and what Ross Douthat and I hoped to spark with our book Grand New Party, is a situation in which social conservatives start to craft an economic policy agenda that can complement the free market vision of the supply-siders by offering a more compelling case for the modernization of the social safety net and a middle-class-centric approach to tax reform. I still think that this is both possible and that it would be a very good thing, yet the energy, at least for now, is coming from supply-siders who want social conservatives to restrain their ambitions in the interests of the coalition.

Another interesting development is that a number of prominent hawks, including Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, are asserting themselves in the domain of fiscal policy. Kristol has — wisely, in my view — suggested that it would be foolish of conservatives to “fall on their sword” over shielding high-earners from any increase in taxes. As regular readers, I actually care a lot about keeping marginal tax rates low, yet one can do that while increasing the average taxes paid by the highest earners as part of a larger settlement. I think it is important to emphasize that conservatives can and should extract concessions for any deal that involves increased revenue, but like Kristol, I don’t think we should should consider such a deal unacceptable from the start.

Robert Kagan, meanwhile, has a new Washington Post op-ed in which he forcefully argues that revenues need to be on the table on the grounds that national security should take precedence over rigid adherence to an anti-tax position:

We need to dispel the illusion that cuts to the national security budget really save us money. Some Republicans who oppose compromising on taxes make the same miscalculation as Democrats who favor deeper defense cuts. They think that if the United States would simply scale back its role in the world, it could save money and make raising further revenue unnecessary. This is a faulty assumption. The present global economic and political order, which has provided the environment in which the United States has grown and prospered for decades, is built on and around American power and influence. Were the United States to cease playing its role in upholding this order, were we to retreat from East Asia or to back away from the challenge posed by a nuclear Iran, the result could only be global instability. From a purely economic perspective, it would be far more costly to restore order and stability — both essential to a prosperous global economy — than it would be to sustain it. Indeed, if there is no deal on the fiscal cliff and the long-term fiscal crisis because Republicans and Democrats won’t make a sensible compromise on raising revenue and reforming entitlements, and the result is further cuts in the defense and foreign affairs budgets, then the cost — including the dollar cost — could make the present budget arguments look absurdly petty. 

Kagan, it is worth noting, is not a conservative in the same sense as Kristol, who is as much a committed social conservative as he is a hawk. Yet I think both Kristol and Kagan see defense sequestration and the broader prospect of deep cuts to defense expenditures as a bigger deal that freezing today’s tax code in place.

Let me stress that I’m offering a stylized portrait of the conservative coalition, which by necessity elides a lot of subtleties.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...