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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Dead-End Kids

by dday

Eve Fairbanks has an important piece about the deepening conservatism in the Congressional Republican caucus. They have been emboldened by their little model Congress stunt on offshore drilling in August, which led to a predictable capitulation from Democrats and the prospect of oil rigs on the California coast within a couple years. Despite the will of the voters at the polls, Republicans learned the lesson of 2008 is that if they stamp their feet and scream loud enough, there is no limit to what they can achieve.

The episode was the happiest moment of the House Republicans' two years in the minority. But, for House conservatives, the energy insurgency provided far more than mere satisfaction: It became a blueprint for the future. Forget the self-flagellating remedies proposed by white-flag Republicans like David Frum or the Sam's Club crowd. The House right-wingers concluded from the drilling victory that conservatism needn't compromise ideologically in order to win--just the opposite. It's a lesson they're eager to apply to Barack Obama's economic schemes, like health care reform and the huge infrastructure stimulus package. Rather than accepting the implications of John McCain's recession-driven loss--that Americans, perhaps, might be growing weary of Republican economics--the conservatives intend to trigger a popular revolt, like the one they provoked over drilling, against Democrat-led socialism itself.

Conservatives may have dwindling ranks, increasing illegitimacy and the headwind of a very well-liked incoming President eager to implement a popular agenda to deal with. But that is simply not what they gained from the election season. Their take was that McCain was insufficiently conservative (!) and that, besieged on all sides, they must stand up for the people and put the brakes on this whole "change" fad. They have nothing left but ideology, and the Drudge/Fox/talk radio megaphone that it still able to mainline that ideology into the public opinion stream. The years of groupthink have proved to BOTH sides in Washington that only conservative populists are the holders of the popular will, regardless of, you know, election returns.

By the time Pence and his pro-drilling confederates stormed the House floor on August 1, Republicans were primed to accept the ensuing battle's lessons: One, dramatic gestures pay; two, conservatives don't have to compromise to capture the people's imagination. "When [Pelosi] and other Democratic leaders felt the force of America against them ... Americans let their voices be heard, and they were enraged, and it affected the way the [energy] bill was put before the House," explains Representative Louie Gohmert, a bald, cheerful judge from Texas who got swept up in the August excitement.

Soon, as Lehman Brothers melted down and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rushed around the Hill begging representatives to do something, a new menace ripe for attack emerged: government intervention in the free market. Psychologically rejuvenated by the energy fight, conservatives turned their newfound taste for melodrama against government bailouts. Hensarling derided the September $700 billion plan to rescue the financial industry as a "slippery slope to socialism," and Thaddeus McCotter, a conservative from the Detroit suburbs, exclaimed that "it was no mistake that, during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was 'Peace, land, and bread.' Today, you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom. I suggest that the people on Main Street have said they prefer their freedom!"

All 17 House Republican freshmen rejected Boehner's tearful pro-bailout appeals and signed up with Hensarling's mutiny against the first bailout vote. And the enthusiastic response from constituents confirmed the conservatives' view that, while America (perplexingly) might not be planning to vote for them, it stood with them. As Culberson posted proudly on Twitter: "Texans core belief =leave me alone: gov't stay away from my home, my family, my church, my school, my bank account & my guns." Even Boehner became a believer. After the GOP's loss on Election Day, its second in a row, he promoted Pence, his old rival, to the leadership team and mailed a letter to House Republicans praising the conservatives and vowing to use the energy episode as his battle plan.

The bailout bill was ideologically muddled by the fact that it was designed to funnel money to giant investment banks at least partially responsible for the financial meltdown, and as such is not the best example. But what's significant is the language used, the simplistic shibboleths of "freedom" and "socialism". These didn't work during the Presidential campaign, but when they are channeled into populist proposals that Democrats haven't successfully pushed back on, the result could be dangerous.

Gohmert, the conservative Texas judge, had the brainstorm for his own contribution to the coming wave as he emerged from anesthesia a few days before Thanksgiving. He'd just undergone surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament, torn in the annual House softball game, and, as he lay recovering, he was possessed with the germ of an idea. He dropped an e-mail to Newt Gingrich. "He wrote, 'Do you realize that the amount of money they want [in the remaining, as-yet-unused $350 billion of the Wall Street bailout fund] is so great that you could actually give every American a tax holiday for two months?'" Gingrich remembers: "I looked at it and I thought, wow, what a great way to quantify it." Newt shot back a message predicting that a two-month holiday on both income and Social Security taxes--proposed by Gohmert as a conservatively populist, don't-let-Big-Brother-take-your-money alternative to the bailouts--would be "brilliant." "I don't get a lot of e-mails from anybody, especially somebody as smart as Newt, saying 'This is brilliant,'" Gohmert modestly admits.

I don't think anyone has invalidated that "let the people have their own money" approach. Obama's transition team is talking about reducing withholding taxes to give tax cuts to working Americans (which is a behavioral economics scheme based on the idea that people will spend an extra $20-$50 they get every two weeks instead of a lump sum of $500 or $1,000, which would just go to paying down debt). Traditional media still foregrounds ideas like "sales tax holidays" forwarded by lobbying groups like the National Retail Federation. And conservative economists can still credibly view the stimulus choice as one between tax cuts and public spending, and call on 40 years of demonization of government to trot out tax cuts yet again as the solution. After all, Obama's proposed it, so it's just a matter of more of them and less of that nasty big-spending liberalism.

The goal will be to end or moderate the recession. According to the textbooks, government spending raises the demand for goods and services. Tax cuts also spur demand by putting more income in the hands of consumers or more after-tax profits in the hands of businesses.

Is a fiscal stimulus good policy? The answer is no if the stimulus consists of increased spending. The stimulus may be good policy, though, if it consists of lower taxes.

See? They're just the same, only lower taxes lets YOU keep YOUR money, and big gubmint spending steals your money for pork. Pork!

There really is nothing left for conservatives to argue beyond "that way lies socialism." As Fairbanks explains, this is the same strategy they used in the 1930s to try and slow down the New Deal. They argued to themselves that Roosevelt was just a charismatic leader and his policies were abhorrent to the majority of the public. They tried to corner the 1930s version of Blue Dog Democrats to get them to flip their votes. They believed the country was center-right and that by holding to their convictions, they could not fail. What else could they do, other than disband? The strategy wasn't very successful then. Nowadays, there is the constant hum of the noise machine and a right-wing movement well-practiced in the art of obstruction. Not to mention a Democratic majority that fetishizes bipartisanship and timid in the face of these cries from the other side.

(I'm wondering about the connection between dead-ender conservative populists and the "Lost-Cause" mythmakers of the South. Michael Lind calls for a "Third Reconstruction" of the South to save the US economy, while Ed Kilgore has a contrarian view, while acknowledging that "first-wave" economic strategies of low wages, deregulation and the absence of unions have taken hold in the South in the Bush era.)

A lot of commenters and writers in the blogosphere thinks that we should just dismiss the conservative populists and let them play their little games, that the elections have rendered them irrelevant. I don't subscribe to this point of view. We still have a media inclined to promote conflict, one that loves a conservative comeback story, as well as a steady stream of right-wing operatives ready to get their position into the discourse. Further, the imbalance between extreme partisan warfare on one side and the desire to play nice on the other persists. Past history of Congressional capitulation is not promising here. Not to mention that so many of the initiatives the incoming Administration wants to implement need to happen fast to maximize their effectiveness, giving the dead-end kids a piece of leverage that they are sure to use.

Cranks like this are present in virtually every new Administration, but in our current media/political age I think they are uniquely equipped to succeed. And I don't see a real strategy to counteract them yet.


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