The Corner

When Politicians Are More Savvy than Pundits

I’ve been surprised to see several thoughtful conservative pundits decry the GOP candidates’ unanimous rejection of a hypothetical budget deal offering a ten-to-one ratio between “real” spending cuts and increased taxes. Here on the Corner, Kevin Williamson said, “Chalk one up to the crazies.” At Commentary, Peter Wehner was also blunt: “If taxes cannot be raised under any circumstance — then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism.”

A favorite tactic of law professors is to ask utterly unrealistic (and often quite wild) hypotheticals designed to push students’ arguments to their “logical extreme.” Law students tend to play along, earnestly and enthusiastically explaining why their preferred legal doctrines would survive alien attacks, plagues of locusts, and gravity-free environments. After the first few fruitless debates, I instituted a personal policy of objecting. When given a wild hypothetical, I’d try to respectfully explain that legal principles exist in a real world and that all tests of such principles should also exist in the real world. In short, an extreme hypothetical not based in any form of recognizable reality wasn’t a “logical extreme,” it was just a debating point.

And so was Bret Baier’s debate question. It was a trap, pure and simple. The whole exchange took about 30 seconds, leaving the candidates unable to ask their own, clarifying questions. What do you mean by “real” cuts? Real versus the CBO baseline or real versus a zero baseline? Are they front-loaded or back-loaded? What is being cut? Are we gutting defense but not touching high-speed rail? Has there been structural entitlement reform as a part of this “deal”? As for the tax increase, are we talking about increased marginal income tax rates (what most people think about when they hear the words “tax increase”)? Or are we talking about, say, phasing out the ethanol subsidy? Oh, and never mind that no such deal has ever been struck in modern history (especially if the cuts are truly “real”), nor is such a deal even on the table in Washington.

Some listeners may have heard an interesting question that could lead to a fascinating debate. But I guarantee you this is what the candidates heard: “I am right now asking you a question based on an utterly unrealistic (and undefined) hypothetical that could very well cost you the campaign. I’m going to do it in about 20 seconds, and if you stand out from the crowd, I’m going to give you — at most — about two minutes to explain yourself before an annoying bell sounds the death knell of your hopes and dreams.”

The candidates were right to raise their hands, and the response to Bret Baier’s question tells us little other than the candidates are opposed to raising taxes and unwilling to commit political suicide. 

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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