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Hullabaloo


Monday, February 18, 2013

 
Republican revival won't be so easy

by David Atkins

Judging from recent opeds, establishment Republicans have looked in the mirror and concluded that their party's woes derive from being stuck in the 1980s. Gerson and Wehner have a long piece to that effect in Commentary, and Ramesh Ponnuru penned an oped in the New York Times with a similar argument.

It would be nice to believe that Republicans are demographically and politically frozen as reactionaries from the 1980s. The truth is that they're much more extreme than that today. When Ponnuru correctly points out that Republicans are still pushing for reductions to the top marginal rate, he pretends that that represents a frozen ideology when it fact it represents that ideology on steroids. It would be as if Democrats had succeeded in securing a $20/hour minimum wage indexed to inflation, and then consistently passed bills increasing it to $30. That wouldn't be a frozen ideology: it would represent a further shift to the left. That is in essence what Republicans are doing now.

But the problem is worse. Ponnuru and Gerson present best case scenarios for Republican ideological reform. These reforms have no chance of gaining traction in their deeply reactionary caucuses any time soon. But even if they did, the policy agenda is still a set of fantasies that are either deeply damaging to the nation, or have already been adopted as mainstream neoliberal Democratic policy.

Gerson's list includes opposition to corporate welfare; a Teddy Roosevelt inspired push to break up the big banks, education "reform" via charters, testing and merit pay (you can take Gerson out of the Bush Administration, but you can't take the Bush Administration out of Gerson); acceptance of climate change and the need for adaptation (but not mitigation); increased spending on the frayed edges of the safety net, including children's health; promotion of marriage and two-parent families regardless of sexual preference; and, of course, immigration reform. Gerson is, in essence, arguing that Republicans should simply become Blue Dog Democrats. In fact, Gerson's proposed policy agenda is in many ways to the left of the more conservative wings of the Democratic Party.

Ponnuru's challenge is more arduous. He argues that Republicans must focused on raising real wages, but doesn't provide any examples of how he would go about doing that. Given that the only proven pathways to wage growth are strong unions, robust minimum wage laws and curbs on worker exploitation (resulting in higher pay per productivity hour), it's hard to see how Ponnuru gets there while laying any claim at all to the mantle of conservatism. Ponnuru also argues that while income taxes were more burdensome in 1980, payroll taxes are the biggest tax bite out of the middle class today. That's certainly true: any sort of middle-class-friendly tax reform seeing to boost employment should begin there. But, of course, payroll taxes directly fund Social Security. So Ponnuru would either need to institute a separate (progressive?) tax to fill the shortfall in Social Security or, more likely, would sooner the program wither on the vine due to lack of funding. If Ponnuru thought Republicans have a messaging challenge now, wait until they advocate killing off Social Security entirely.

In short, even if Gerson and Ponnuru could mobilize their recalcitrant base and its favored sons to accept their agenda, it would be a disaster for them. Ponnuru offers "solutions" so full of holes they would fail a freshman course assignment. Gerson advocates that Republicans simply become Blue Dog Democrats, a move that would guarantee a third party movement and internal civil war.

The Republicans have a long, long way to go to escape the wilderness. Gerson and Ponnuru don't have the answers.


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