President Obama said yesterday, “The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.” This is indeed the interesting question: Is politics motivating the Republicans, or ideology? I realize that Obama meant to ask whether the government would be shut down. But humor me while I interpret the sentence the other way: Politics versus ideology.
Most of what the Grand Old Party has done in the last two years can much better be explained by politics than ideology. For example, only politics can explain a systematic strategy of opposing whatever the White House favors, even when this requires changing one’s vote — for example on the fiscal commission bill that Senators like John McCain had previously been sponsors of. Only politics can explain the long-time refusal of so-called fiscal conservatives to name the specific spending programs they want to cut.
On Tuesday Representative Paul Ryan unveiled a new long-term budget plan that apparently comes closer to naming the specific programs he wants to cut. Medicaid and Medicare. Perhaps we are getting closer to the point where we can actually have a debate over ideology, over competing policy priorities. This would be an improvement over the nonsense that has passed for public debate in recent years.
If so, let us be clear that, despite the rhetoric, the policy priority of the Tea Party and Paul Ryan is not fiscal conservatism. Fiscal conservatism is supposed to mean the reduction of budget deficits, paying for what you spend, matching tax revenue to expenditure. Someone who was sincere about eliminating the budget deficits that we have inherited would propose a long-term plan that included roles for raising tax revenue and cutting defense spending, in addition to slowing the growth of entitlements and domestic spending. But the tax cuts in the Ryan plan in fact would lose revenue almost equal to its spending cuts. In other words, it mostly uses the cuts in federal medical care spending to pay for more tax cuts. This pattern is not new. The supposed fiscal conservatives who were elected to Congress last November have increased the budget deficit. Their insistence on renewing the Bush tax cuts (for the rich, as usual) has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the current deficits, outweighing all the specific spending cuts that they have proposed, combined. Other ways they are adding to the deficit include trying to cut funding for IRS enforcement and trying to repeal the Obama health care reforms. (The Ryan plan would repeal the health reforms, but ignores that doing so would add to the deficit according to CBO’s scoring.) These choices follow the tradition of those “fiscal conservatives” Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush whose budgetary policies created the majority of the national debt we have to live with today.
Even though Obama’s opponents in Congress cannot sustain the claim of being fiscal conservatives, it is possible that some will now genuinely lay claim to the other two-word ideological phrase: “small government.” Do they want to, finally, come out and say explicitly that their goal is to cut domestic spending (especially entitlements) in order to cut taxes, putting the priority on shrinking government rather than eliminating the budget deficit? Are they prepared to own Dick Cheney’s claim, “Reagan showed that deficits don’t matter”?
I am not sure if they are. Ryan said Sunday “We are going to put out a plan that gets our debt on a downward trajectory and gets us to the point of giving our next generation a debt-free nation.” This incredible sentence suggests that he still lacks the requisite numeracy (or sincerity) that many have inexplicably attributed to him. The numbers in the plan that he proposed two days later don’t come close to the headline claims of shrinking the budget deficit by $4 trillion cumulated over the next decade, let alone eliminating it altogether. But does Ryan even understand that to pay off the debt that Reagan and Bush bequeathed us we would have to run $100 billion surpluses for a hundred years?