Our Economic Problems Keep Changing, But The GOP’s Answers Stay The Same

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The legend of Gertrude Stein’s final words is that her partner Alice B. Toklas despairingly asked her on her deathbed: “What is the answer?” And Gertrude responded: “What is the question?”

Ironic as it may seem that an expat Jewish lesbian avant-garde writer famous in the 1920s could articulate the operating principle of the Republican Party nearly a century later, it sort of does sum it all up. For today’s ideologically rigid GOP, the “answers” to national challenges are clear; the trick is to adapt them to different “questions.”

This is most obvious with economic and fiscal policy, where the conservative movement and the Republican Party have embraced a largely static agenda of deregulation, top-end personal and business tax cuts and sharp reductions in domestic spending, with periodic attacks on New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs, with “devolution” as an instrument for “reform,” for well over thirty years, or about halfway back to Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946. There has been a “minority report” on taxes among conservatives favoring a consumption tax—the “Fair Tax” promoted by Mike Huckabee and many others being the most popular contemporary iteration—but the distributional thrust is the same or even more regressive. And there has also been persistent interest among social conservatives in “family-friendly” tax policies, usually a big boost in the child tax credit. But it’s pretty much a regular menu with the occasional refresh.

What’s fascinating, though, is how these policies are offered again and again as an agenda for all seasons and all circumstances—good times (like the late 1990s), bad times (like the last few years), budget surpluses (in 2001, when George W. Bush marketed his huge package of tax cuts as a “rebate”), budget deficits (the 1980s through the early 1990s, and again since 2009), and just about every climate in between the extremes.

Lately we’re getting a slightly remixed version of the same old, same old as the “answer” to wage stagnation and income equality—essential topics for a number of reasons, notably the growth and unemployment indices making it tougher to attack Obama for a slow or nonexistent recovery from the Great Recession. But if you listen closely, there’s not a whole lot we haven’t heard before, as Bloomberg Politics’ Ben Brody noted recently:

In July, Representative Paul Ryan’s Budget Committee issued a draft anti-poverty plan lamenting that “far too many people are stuck on the lower rungs” of the economy and recommending a combination of reformed social safety nets, state flexibility in education, and decreased regulations. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, meanwhile, has gone even farther, declaring on his website that “the United States is beset by a crisis in inequality” and that “bigger government is not the solution to unequal opportunity—it’s the cause.”

Uh huh: You got your “entitlement reform,” your devolution, your deregulation, and your smaller government. And even more Republicans are eager to throw some tax preferences at the problem. That’s the standard formula from “Reformicon” intellectuals and the handful of Republican pols (notably Marco Rubio) listening to them . But it mostly revolves around the old social conservative indirect method of addressing economic problems by encouraging marriage and children.

There is, to be fair, one very different conservative policy idea for dealing with wage stagnation that actually does harken back to Gertrude Stein’s era: Rick Santorum’s argument that deporting undocumented workers and maybe even restricting legal immigration would give American workers a fighting chance to get ahead.

The tendency to adapt a fixed ideology to changing circumstances extends beyond economic and fiscal policy. It’s been obvious since 2001 that many Republicans have simply replaced the Cold War with the Global War on Terror as the rationale for ever-higher defense budgets and a posture of bristling “strength” made credible by the occasional war—though now and then North Korea, Russia and China make guest-star appearances in the Right’s foreign policy drama, reprising old roles. And while Rand Paul offers a non-interventionist alternative (when he’s not trying to defuse Republican criticism of his “isolationism” via his own brand of tough talk), he, like Santorum, is reviving a Republican golden oldie, as his defenders at the American Conservative magazine are happy to explain.

Even on cultural issues, the Right’s ability to pour old wine into new bottles is impressive. For example: Did you know putting restrictions on abortion clinics in ways that put them out of business is an excellent way to address the reproductive health needs of American women? You didn’t? Hey, keep up.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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