The Magazine

The Double Bind

What stands in the way of a Republican revival? Republicans.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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This would improve the GOP’s standing when voters are asked which party cares more about “people like me,” Brooks writes. And a more compassionately phrased conservatism, it is said, would win more elections. Republicans can keep their current platform. They just need to frame it in terms of uplifting the weak and aspirant.

Brooks writes, “The core problem with out of control entitlements is not that they are costly,” contrary to what the GOP has been saying since Paul Ryan took over the budget committee. It’s that “the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens.”

School choice, a longstanding conservative policy, isn’t intended “to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats.” It’s meant to improve schools for “poor children and their parents.” Corporate tax reform, one supposes, would allow the poor to operate on a level playing field with Alcoa and Anheuser-Busch. And once again, conservatives who “instinctively welcome the immigrants” would reap the electoral benefits Republicans have enjoyed for the last 20 years.

Perhaps there is a way to frame conservative arguments to make them palatable in an American political culture that prefers equality to difference and diversity to merit. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, after all, won him 48 percent of the national popular vote in 2000.

Maybe it’s not only the packaging of the message, though. Maybe it’s also the content of the message. Voters want to know, what have you done for us lately? They want tangible benefits. Now.

Man’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” really does lead him to better his condition. But the mechanism by which the free market enriches the least among us is invisible and gradual. It’s so gradual, in fact, that it may have stopped. The stock market and corporate earnings may be soaring, but wages as a share of the economy have fallen to a record low. Unemployment remains stuck around 8 percent. Growth is negligible.

When the rhetorical varnish has worn off, voters will look at the substance of GOP proposals. And voters not already part of the Republican coalition will find in those proposals the same things they disliked when Mitt Romney proposed them last year. They do not take from the rich and give to the poor. They deliver intangible benefits. They can be portrayed easily as serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

Thus the Republican quandary: Crack down on Wall Street and watch the party’s financial resources dry up. Increase the power of the Education Department and watch the conservative coalition divide. Amnesty 12 million illegal immigrants and gain 12 million new Democrats while incentivizing additional illegal border crossings and watching parts of the GOP coalition self-immolate. Or play the compassion card for a couple of hands​—​until the media call you hypocrites and the targets of outreach turn against you.

If there is any consolation, it’s that none of this is new. In 1976, in his essay “The Republican Future,” Irving Kristol wrote:

Why hasn’t the Republican Party been able to construct a program of its own, in which the American people can have confidence? I would suggest two reasons. First, the party has never fully reconciled itself to the welfare state, and therefore has never given comprehensive thought to the question of what a conservative welfare state would look like. Second, because of their close historic association with the business community, Republican leaders tend to think like businessmen rather than like statesmen, and therefore bumble their way through their terms in office.

Kristol added, “I say ‘businessman’s mentality,’ but a more accurate description would be ‘accountant’s mentality.’ ”

In hindsight, we see the last four years have conformed to Kristol’s analysis. Stunned and panicked by Obama’s ambition, and by the explosive growth in government transfer payments, Republican politicians have been on defense. They have spent more time attempting to check Obama, and to reduce spending, than attempting to sketch an alternative vision of the good society. And when they did sketch an alternative vision, in the form of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity, they prioritized debt and deficit reduction. Then they ran a responsible businessman as their presidential candidate. They embraced the “accountant’s mentality.”

Certainly public debt has grown. Certainly the rising cost of health care is unsustainable in the long run. But most people do not think in terms of the long run. Most people think in terms of the short run. And the horrible consequences of which Republicans warn have not yet materialized. They may not materialize for a long time.

Americans have been on the receiving end of a bad deal, everyone agrees. But you can’t beat a bad deal with no deal. And that is what many believe the Republican party has been offering.

And this, too, has been a problem for a while. “The idea of ‘liberty’ which conservatives wish to defend, and which our liberal institutions are supposed to incarnate, has become exceedingly nebulous in the course of the past century,” Kristol wrote in a 1975 essay, “On Conservatism and Capitalism.”

“This puts conservatives in the position of being, or seeming to be, merely mindless defenders of the status quo,” Kristol wrote. “Indeed, to many they seem merely intransigent defenders of existing privilege, issuing appeals to ‘liberty’ for such an ulterior purpose alone.” This is life in the double bind.

Still, let’s assume for the sake of argument, and our mental health, that the double bind does not exist. Let’s assume we live in a twilight zone where Republican politicians are not bound by the Republican coalition that currently exists. Let’s say, in this imaginary land, that Republicans follow Kristol’s dicta, stop thinking like accountants, and accept the welfare state. What would a good deal for voters​—​a conservative welfare state​—​look like?

Well, just as the liberal welfare state could be said to benefit liberals, a conservative welfare state presumably would benefit conservatives. And who are the conservatives? They tend to be taxpaying married adults with families. And they tend to have been ill-served by the last couple of decades of American government, which has promised them the bounty of a global economy but left them paying the tab for the mistakes of Republican and Democratic elites, bankers, and bobos.

These middle Americans see one party as the shield of super-rich “job creators” and the other as the shield of a growing number of government dependents and beneficiaries. These middle Americans’ wages are stagnant. The costs of health care and education are rising. On homeownership and energy, the government has ginned up expectations but underdelivered.

Imagining a conservative welfare state requires Republicans to revisit some of the assumptions they have held since the end of the Cold War. Maybe the foremost concern of most Americans is not the top marginal income tax rate. Maybe you can’t seriously lower health care costs without radically overhauling the way we pay for health care. Maybe a political party can’t address adequately such middle-class concerns as school quality and transportation without using the power of government. Maybe the globalization of capital and products and labor hasn’t been an unimpeachable good.

Take the payroll tax, for example. More Americans are affected by the payroll tax than by the income tax, notes conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru. The payroll tax is a tax on work, which is an odd thing to support for a party with the founding slogan “free soil, free labor, free men.” Both parties have increased and maintained the payroll tax over the years. The single exception was the 2010 tax deal. And when that deal expired last year, both parties allowed the payroll tax to increase. Sure enough, consumer spending declined.

There is a way to lighten the burden of payroll taxes on the families with children that vote Republican. “An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered,” Ponnuru wrote recently in the New York Times. “Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent tax rate.”

Instead Republicans call for reform of the personal income tax and corporate income tax. They want to use the revenue from eliminating tax exemptions, deductions, and credits to lower tax rates on capital and dividends and inheritance. If they really wanted to reward their voters, they would shift the discussion to cutting the payroll tax and increasing tax benefits for parents with children.

Or consider the rising cost of health insurance. Every year Americans pay tens of thousands of dollars in health premiums, payroll taxes, and income taxes to cover the cost of insurance. And the cost keeps rising. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was meant to achieve universal coverage using the insurance model. But that model is broken.

Republicans might go beyond simply opposing the Affordable Care Act. They might provide the states exits to more flexibility and fewer mandates. They might incentivize high-deductible plans and Health Savings Accounts and demand price transparency.

Above all, they might begin a decades-long process of having consumers play a more active role in their health care. A competitive consumer market is the only known means of lowering cost while increasing supply. And introducing consumer principles into American health care would provide direct benefits​—​cheaper premiums, lower taxes, long-term savings​—​to Republican voters.

In our federal system, education and transportation mainly are state concerns. Voters experience the success or failure of state initiatives in these areas every day. So, in our conservative utopia, Republicans in Congress would help governors and legislatures experiment with school funding mechanisms, statewide curricula, and congestion pricing and public-private partnerships. Their job would be to give the governors the maximum amount of flexibility. No one would judge which is the “true conservative” approach. As Ponnuru put it last week, Republicans would spend more time looking for allies and less time looking for heretics.

The conservative welfare state of our dreams would be, well, a state. That is, it would be an effective federal government. And it would be a community. Human beings are not faceless monads choosing identities at will from a universal menu of options. Human beings are born into families, faiths, and nations.

The security of all three of these pre-liberal forms of association is important. For families, that means growing incomes while lessening the costs of child-rearing, and giving parents blocking gear against the offenses of a hazardous popular culture. For faiths, that means protecting ministerial exceptions and religious liberty. For the nation, that means borders that are secure, a trade policy that puts the interests of American laborers over the interests of multinational corporations, a sound currency, and a fearsome military.

Every daydream, though, has to end. The conservative welfare state is unachievable so long as the Republican party exists in its current form. That is the reality of the double bind.

But that reality is not necessarily permanent. Recall that Kristol was describing the set of circumstances that existed almost 40 years ago. Ronald Reagan ended up breaking the double bind of the 1970s by ditching the accountant’s mentality and adopting a supply-side economics program that put economic growth and military superiority above deficit concerns. Reagan did not touch Social Security​—​he actually strengthened it with tax increases​—​and ignored Medicare. His presidency was such a success that President Obama now seeks to emulate it.

Reagan’s solutions are no longer applicable in the post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-financial-crisis world. But his experience in the late 1970s shows that an entrepreneurial politician can escape a stagnant GOP by questioning the assumptions of the Republican party and challenging the priorities of its strongest constituencies.

Who in the GOP is ready to make a similar challenge today? Beats me. But I do know this: Whoever she is, she will know all about the double bind.

Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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