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Morning Jay: The DLC and Democratic Moderates, Reagan, and Sizing Up the GOP Field!

6:00 AM, Feb 9, 2011 • By JAY COST
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1. Who's Extreme? For decades now, we have been told that the extremism of the conservative movement is so beyond the boundaries of rational political discourse that the Grand Old Party is set to fall into a pathetic, rump minority. Not coincidentally, these warnings have corresponded to the period when conservative have dominated the GOP, and the GOP has returned to parity or better with the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are regularly celebrated as the party of moderation. Just recently, for instance, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, editors of Politico, explained to us that reporters are partial to Obama not because they have liberal biases but because they have pragamatic, moderate biases -- and, of course, Obama is just so gosh-darned centrist!

And yet, which party's august centrist group is shuttering its doors because of lack of funds?

The Democratic Leadership Council, the iconic centrist organization of the Clinton years, is out of money and could close its doors as soon as next week...

Also, which congressional leader isn't even talking with her moderate partisans? Nancy Pelosi, of course.

The lesson in all of this? Over the last 50 years there has been a noticeable increase in ideological polarization, one that has affected the Democrats just as much as the Republicans. As an unnamed Democratic source told NRO's Brian Bolduc on why the DLC is closing shop: “Both of the parties are increasingly ideologically homogeneous. There’s no longer a vibrant Ripon society in the Republican party, and that is in large part because you have the demise of the Rockefeller Republicans and the conservative Democrats.” Exactly. This is a trend that has affected both parties. 

Yet extremism is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. The fact that the media is so focused on extremism in the GOP while the center is clearly collapsing in the Democratic Party as well says more about the media than either party.

2. Ronald Reagan...Democrat?! With Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday come and gone, it has been interesting to watch him be reinterpreted by liberals who, a generation ago, would surely have been his harshest critics. That's fine by me. I would much rather read arguments about how the 40th president was a moderate rather than, say, a racist. But Eugene Robinson takes things too far:

"As we mark the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, one of our major political parties has become imbued with the Gipper's political philosophy and governing style. I mean the Democrats, of course.

"The Republican Party tries to claim the Reagan mantle but has moved so far to the right that it now inhabits its own parallel universe. On the planet that today's GOP leaders call home, Reagan would qualify as one of those big-government, tax-and-spend liberals who are trying so hard to destroy the American way of life."

Read between the lines, and you can see that this column is not really about praising Reagan, but trashing the modern-day Republican party, which Robinson later says has "lost its mind." His point is that today's GOP is so extreme that not even Reagan would support it.

The evidence he marshals for this thesis is not very impressive:

What eludes the GOP's selective memory is that Reagan subsequently raised taxes 11 times, beginning with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. All told, he took back roughly half of that hallowed 1981 tax cut. Why? Because he realized that the United States needed an effective federal government -- and that to be effective, the government needed more money.

Republicans laud Reagan's unshakable commitment to smaller government. Yet federal employment rolls grew under his watch; they shrank under Bill Clinton. Reagan had promised to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education, but he didn't. Instead, he signed legislation that added to the Cabinet a new Department of Veterans Affairs.

TEFRA did indeed raise taxes, but it pointedly did not do so by changing the basic structure that had been created by Kemp-Roth. Instead, it closed loopholes and amped up enforcement procedures. And Robinson's explanation as to why Reagan passed this tax increase is absurdly ahistorical. Reagan believed that government would be "effective" with "more money?" Really...does that sound like something Ronald Reagan would believe?! Maybe Robinson has him confused with Lyndon Johnson! Anyway, the point of the tax increase had to do with the budget deficit that had spiked because of the recession, and the political compromises that had to be made with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for telling a nuanced story about the Reagan record, one that acknowledges his political compromises and the ways that government grew under his watch. But Robinson stretches things to absurdity. In 1981 individual income taxes amounted to 9.4 percent of GDP. In 1989 that number had fallen to 8.3 percent. Overall, the total tax burden fell from 19.6 percent of GDP to 18.4 percent. Additionally, federal domestic discretionary spending fell during this period from 4.5 percent of GDP to 3.1 percent. 

That last figure, by the way, surely helped prompt Walter Mondale to declare at the 1984 Democratic National Convention that Reagan was "savag(ing) Social Security and Medicare," "destroy(ing) family farming," "poison(ing) the environment" and "assault(ing) the poor, the sick, and the disabled." 

I appreciate the desire to canonize Reagan as a non-partisan, national leader. It's a good habit that this country has cultivated over the years, whereby old partisans become timeless Americans. But c'mon, you can't go drawing patently silly conclusions based on incomplete pieces of data, just for the purpose of scoring a cheap shot at the modern day GOP! 

3. Sizing up the GOP Nomination Battle. With Mississippi governor Haley Barbour all but declaring himself a candidate for the Republican nomination, we're now seeing two nomination battles take shape.

The first will be fought in Iowa, with an emphasis on cultural issues. Right now, I see Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum as the main contenders in the Hawkeye State.

The second will be fought in New Hampshire, with an emphasis on fiscal issues. Right now, I see Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney being the leading contenders there. 

Three candidates might be strong in both states -- Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, and John Thune. They could play well for the fiscal crowd in New Hampshire, and they might take advantage of regional and economic affinity with Iowa (all three come from big farming states in the Midwest). 

At this point, I don't see anybody whose fundamentals suggest he could win both contests. If nobody is able to sweep both, Iowa and New Hampshire will function as the qualifying rounds in the primary battle. Candidates will have to do reasonably well in one or the other to stamp their tickets to Super Tuesday, where a broad swath of the Republican electorate will be asked to choose a candidate who emphasizes social or fiscal issues. 

Historically, something like this has happened before -- most recently in 2008. What is really interesting is how, even this early on, the divide between the Iowa and New Hampshire candidates is so sharp.

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