Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Republican's Real Problem

Conventional wisdom has it that the Republican Party’s problem is their base.  The base has very extreme views and will not allow any sort of compromise or politics as usual, which make it impossible for the basically sane and reasonable leadership to conduct normal politics for fear of primary challenge.  While there is some truth to this view, I suspect that it is only half the truth.  The other half is that the Republican elite (defined, roughly, as donors and think tanks, who have disproportionate influence on elected officials) are committed to some extreme programs that if seriously attempted would be highly unpopular with the general public, including most of the Republican base.

In the past, the Republican Party was an unwieldy coalition between its upscale wing that was economically conservative and socially moderate to liberal and its religious wing, that was socially conservative and economically populist.  That split no longer holds.  In fact, Pew Poll has found, solid Republican voters see eye to eye on practically all issues and disagree mostly in their intensity.  This article has found much the same -- that (white) Evangelical Christians increasingly see God as operating through the free market, which makes regulation the instrument of the devil.  (And, indeed, Pew found Tea Party types to be harder core supporters of free market economics than even small-l libertarians).  Libertarians and Evangelical Christians also share an opposition government social programs on the grounds that such things should be funded through voluntary charity.

Nonetheless, I see the potential for a deep and severe split within the Republican Party -- with the Tea Party coming down on the moderate side.  The Republican Party finds itself in the absurd position of being programmatically opposed to government spending, while having a base that disproportionately benefits from such spending.  Studies of the Tea Party grass roots explains the seeming contradiction.  The Tea Party rank and file are not, in fact, driven by a blanket opposition to all government spending, or even to all social programs.  What they oppose is programs benefiting people perceived as "undeserving." "Deserving" people are ones who have worked hard and contributed to the system.  The Tea Party rank and file support Social Security, Medicare, and veteran's benefits because they are seen as programs benefiting people who have worked hard and earned them.  (And, perhaps not coincidentally, because a lot of Tea Party members either receive such benefits or expect to in the near future).  The undeserving, roughly speaking, are the young, the poor, and illegal immigrants.  Tea Party members also oppose taxes and regulation and consider themselves socially conservative, but these are secondary concerns.  Their primary concerns are cutting spending for the undeserving and securing the border.

What this amounts to is that the Republican base is only harder core than the leadership on some issues. They may very well agree on taxes, regulation, and social conservatism.  Tea Partiers are probably harder core than conservative think tanks in opposing spending on the "undeserving."  While Republican wonks want to cut safety net spending, they usually concede the legitimacy of at least a little spending for the very poor.  The Tea Party is less forgiving.  The Tea Party is clearly tougher on immigration than the Republican leadership which, influenced by business interests, would like some sort of deal.  But above all, I suspect Tea Party extremism is a matter of style more than substance.  They hate Obama and all Democrats and want no compromise, no concessions, just all-out confrontation.   No doubt much of the Congressional Republican leadership would like a friendlier way of doing business.

But Social Security and Medicare are a different matter altogether.  Our conservative elite basically regards them as morally and constitutionally illegitimate.  They condemn Obamacare as an "entitlement."  They sometimes condemn George W. Bush for creating a new "entitlement" in Medicare D.  They lament that the trouble with entitlements is that, once enacted, they are almost impossible to repeal.  The only logical conclusion from such talk is that they regard all entitlements as bad.  Social Security and Medicare are entitlements.  The syllogism is obvious.  Paul Ryan has made no secret of his desire to turn Medicare and Social Security in to "defined contribution" rather than "defined benefit" plans, i.e., to turn Social Security into a 401-k and Medicare into a voucher system.  Eric Cantor has offered to undo the sequester cuts if replaced with equivalent cuts in "entitlements."  Does anyone doubt what entitlements he has in mind?  At least one Republican proposal for the debt ceiling is to extend it to the end of Obama's term only if he agrees to voucherize Medicare.

Meanwhile, the Republican base emphatically opposes such measures.  But this researcher finds, conservative think tanks adopt the tea party name, but have no real association with grass roots organizations and, in turn, the rank and file have little knowledge of what such groups are advocating in their name.  And there you have it.  The Tea Party grass roots will stop at nothing to repeal Obamacare, even shutting down the entire federal government indefinitely and (perhaps) even defaulting on our debt.  But it wants to repeal Obamacare to shore up Medicare.  The leadership thinks this would be a tactical error and wants to undermine Obamacare by more gradual and subtle means.  But it wants to repeal Obamacare as a preliminary to undermining Medicare.

Which, then, are the hardliners and which are the moderates?

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