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Friday, February 24, 2012

Why Republican Contenders' Views on Social Issues Matter More than their Views on Economic Issues

by David Atkins

On the whole, economic issues interest me more in politics than social issues do. That's because the culture wars are played out in, well, the broader culture, while the economic wars are fought largely in secret without the public's knowledge of what is being done to affect their lives in profound ways. As with the New Deal and Reaganomics, it's possible to change economic laws to dramatic effect almost overnight, whereas laws on social issues tend to change gradually over time, with the most dramatic and rapid changes occurring through the courts rather than the legislative or executive process.

But when it comes to looking at the Republican contenders for the presidency, social issues matter more than economic ones for some very simple reasons. Consider the case of Mitt Romney. Paul Krugman argues that Romney actually understands Keynesian economics and doesn't kowtow obsequiously before the supply-side gods, but his need to win over the GOP base won't let him admit it:

Speaking in Michigan, Mr. Romney was asked about deficit reduction, and he absent-mindedly said something completely reasonable: “If you just cut, if all you’re thinking about doing is cutting spending, as you cut spending you’ll slow down the economy.” A-ha. So he believes that cutting government spending hurts growth, other things equal.

The right’s ideology police were, predictably, aghast; the Club for Growth quickly denounced the statement as showing that Mr. Romney is “not a limited-government conservative.” On the contrary, insisted the club, “If we balanced the budget tomorrow on spending cuts alone, it would be fantastic for the economy.” And a Romney spokesman tried to walk back the remark, claiming, “The governor’s point was that simply slashing the budget, with no affirmative pro-growth policies, is insufficient to get the economy turned around.”

But that’s not what the candidate said, and it’s very unlikely that it’s what he meant. Almost surely, he is, in fact, a closet Keynesian...

Beyond that, we know who he turns to for economic advice; heading the list are Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard. While both men are loyal Republican spear-carriers — each served for a time as chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers — both also have long track records as professional economists. And what these track records suggest is that neither of them believes any of the propositions that have become litmus tests for would-be G.O.P. presidential candidates.

Maybe, maybe not. No one should be remotely willing to test that theory when a man with Michigan roots argues that the American automotive industry be allowed to go bankrupt rather than receive stimulative support.

But of course, as Krugman points out, Mitt Romney has no real principles whatsoever beyond getting himself elected, and enriching himself and his friends:

And therein lies the reason Mr. Romney acts the way he does, why he is running a campaign of almost pathological dishonesty.

For he is. Every one of the Romney campaign’s major themes, from the attacks on President Obama for going around the world apologizing for America (he didn’t), to the insistence that Romneycare and Obamacare are very different (they’re virtually identical), to the claim that Mr. Obama has lost millions of jobs (which is only true if you count the first few months of his administration, before any of his policies had taken effect), is either an outright falsehood or deeply deceptive. Why the nonstop mendacity?

As I see it, it comes down to the cynicism underlying the whole enterprise. Once you’ve decided to hide your beliefs and say whatever you think will get you the nomination, to pretend to agree with people you privately believe are fools, why worry at all about truth?

And yet, does any of this matter? It's all academic, anyway. Grover Norquist is one of the most underestimated political actor in America, and he knows exactly what a Republican President is there to do, economically speaking:

All we have to do is replace Obama. ... We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. ... We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.

Grover's right. A Republican President--be it Romney, Santorum, Gingrich or even Ron Paul--will basically sign whatever odious economic bills come out of the thoroughly corrupted legislative process. There isn't a whole lot of executive authority to make big economic changes, because Congress ultimately controls the purse strings.

Obviously, there's a world of difference, economically speaking, between the two parties in terms of who holds the White House. Veto power alone guarantees that. But there isn't altogether that much difference between Presidents of the same general worldview. Ludwig von Mises himself wouldn't be that much more dangerous than Mitt Romney (or Gingrich or Santorum or Paul), because no matter what Mitt or his opponents might think about it personally, none of them wouldn't veto the Ryan budget if it came to their Oval Office desk. Similarly, a reanimated FDR wouldn't be able to accomplish that much more on the economic front than Obama has, given the legislative realities at play. Personal ideology, arm twisting and the bully pulpit count for something, to be sure, but not as much as many people think.

No, the biggest differences to consider when evaluating various candidates within a particular political party are on social issues and foreign policy, for it is within these areas that the Executive Branch has the greatest leeway to act independently and follow the President's personal views. Ron Paul would be an enormously different president from Newt Gingrich in matters of war and peace. Mitt Romney would likely be a very different president from Rick Santorum on social issues. Their Supreme Court choices would likely be significantly different, as would their executive orders and directives.

That's why as frustrating as it can be at times for economic progressives to find themselves awash in news about Republicans' views on social issues and foreign policy during primary season, those are actually the policy questions that matter most. From a policy point of view, it's only when the nominees of each party square off against one another that the economic arguments really begin to matter.