Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Circular Firing Squad

(NB: This is not addressed to any specific individuals. I also believe that supporters of the Ryan budget have every right to make their case as strongly as they can. This more addresses a particular mood.)

Maybe it's me, but some of the intra-right debate about the Ryan budget is sounding increasingly like the debate over Christine O'Donnell in 2010: focusing more on sending a message than on advancing conservative goals.

A couple preliminary facts: the Ryan budget has NO chance of passing until 2013, and, at the moment, it is not very popular.

Knowing both of those facts
, the House Republican caucus decided to vote overwhelmingly in favor of this measure. Fair enough. Leadership had its reasons. Many House members walked the plank on this vote, and that gamble may prove to be helpful for conservatives shaping the debate in the future. That die is already cast.

House Republicans and the Republican establishment may feel the need to circle the wagons to defend that vote. That is also fair or at least understandable.

But what is dangerous is a crusade against any Republican who dares to criticize the Ryan budget. That budget is not perfect, to say the least. The Republican and conservative causes are not strengthened by an attempt to enforce a petty ideological orthodoxy (the Bush years suffered from this tendency toward uniformity).

Republicans derided Democrats for forcing through Obamacare, an ambitious, radical measure with weak popular support. Democrats and progressives twisted countless arms to impose their vision on an unenthusiastic America. The backlash from this measure helped sink Democrats across the country. Republicans should not fall into the same trap, especially for a measure that will never become law until, potentially, after the next election.

The number one electoral goal for Republicans at the moment should be putting forward the most credible, competent, and electable conservative candidates possible---not (forgive me, Mr. Chairman) fighting and dying on the hill of the Ryan "roadmap." Passing the Ryan budget may be part of the victory for free-market conservatives, but we should not fetishize a single piece of legislation to the detriment of all else.

For those who believe that there is an entitlements crisis---no, a national emergency---that needs to be stopped RIGHT NOW!!!!---forget about the Ryan budget. It would add trillions of dollars to the debt* in the next few years. Its major reforms for Medicare would not be substantially felt for well over a decade; Medicare as we know it would continue for everyone who is over 55 by the time it passes, and, for a while after that, the majority of people on Medicare would have the old-school variant.

If we are at fiscal/entitlements Armageddon, the Ryan budget is a failure. If we are not at that point, this budget may be more helpful. Under either circumstance, there is no need for such strident denunciations of those who would dare to criticize it.

Scott Brown voting in favor of the Ryan budget on the Senate floor in 2011 will do absolutely nothing to advance the cause of fiscal conservatism; indeed, voting for it may hurt that cause, since such a vote could very well hurt Brown's chances of reelection. Though Newt Gingrich may have used inopportune language in criticizing Ryan's "roadmap," he is well within his rights to suggest the limitations of this plan.

Any Republican presidential candidate (or any Republican candidate at all) who wishes to distance himself or herself from the Ryan budget and propose entitlement reforms of his or her own has every right to do so. And this critique should not be necessarily confused with a forfeiture of all conservative principles. If the Ryan budget is so important for a GOP presidential candidate, then Ryan himself should run for the White House.

Sending a message to show that you're "serious" about fiscal reform is the mere hysteria of Washington kabuki. Reducing unhelpful spending and cutting the deficit and reforming derelict programs---those are the things that really advance fiscal conservatism.

Oh, and back to Christine O'Donnell: she lost big, and Senator Chris Coons is highly unlikely ever to vote for anything closely resembling the Ryan budget. The emphasis should be less on attacking Republicans for daring to dissent and more on persuading those dissenters and the public at large why the Ryan budget is a good idea (as Ryan aims to do here). Turning one's back on RINO traitors may be a cathartic move, but it does little to advance real conservatism. When conservatism becomes the politics of rage and exclusion, it loses; when it becomes the politics of hope and engagement, it wins.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post had "deficit" instead.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trouble for Democrats in RI-01

WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island has released a poll about first-term Democratic congressman David Cicilline. The former mayor of Providence had a six-point win over Republican John Loughlin in 2010, but this new poll suggests that, if the election were held today, the results would be quite different:

The new survey of 300 registered voters in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District shows Cicilline's 2010 opponent, former state Rep. John Loughlin, would defeat him 47 percent to 35 percent, with 17 percent undecided.

Another Republican, former State Police Col. Brendan Doherty, would beat Cicilline 46 percent to 33 percent, with 20 percent undecided, the poll reveals.

Loughlin wins big with Republicans and Independents in this poll. Cicilline's approval rating is stuck in the low 30s; over 57% of those polled have somewhat or very negative feelings for him. Cicilline's poll numbers have in part suffered due to the current fiscal state of Providence, for which a number of voters blame him.

Those over 60 have the most negative feelings toward Cicilline, and it looks like he may attempt to try to win some of them over by emphasizing his support of Medicare and Social Security.

In 2010, Cicilline barely broke the 50% mark, indicating limits to his support. In a district where only a little over 40% of voters think that Barack Obama is doing a good or excellent job, this could be one Democrat in trouble for 2012.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Daniels, Pawlenty Supported More H-1B Visas

In 2007, thirteen governors, eight Democrats and five Republicans, sent a letter to Congress asking for an increase in H-1B visas and green cards. The signers of this letter include two possible Republican candidates for president: Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels. Texas Governor Rick Perry, another possible GOP candidate, also signed this letter. The other two Republican signers were Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jim Gibbons of Nevada.

This letter states that more high-skilled temporary workers were important for the nation's economic success, claiming a shortage of high-skilled domestic workers for math and science professions.

Democratic governors who signed off on this letter include two future members of the Obama administration: Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. The other Democratic signers are Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Chris Gregoire of Washington, Eliot Spitzer of New York, Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Bill Ritter of Colorado, and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming.

Pawlenty has had some tough talk on illegal immigration, while Daniels has been on the record supporting some of the mass legalizations of "undocumented immigrants" proposed under President Bush; he demanded major reforms for an Arizona-style immigration bill that passed the Indiana Senate but ended up signing a measure mandating more checks to ensure the legality of potential employees.

It remains to be seen how much immigration will be an issue for the 2012 Republican primary. Illegal immigration is an issue the grassroots and many independents have passionate feelings about, but the Republican nominee of 2008 was perhaps the Republican most strongly identified with attempts to pass mass legalizations. John McCain was able to step away from his history with a few vague declarations about how he supported enforcement first, even though he continued to emphasize the need for some kind of "comprehensive immigration reform."

What Was the Bush Economy?

Conflicts on the right are still simmering over what course to chart for the economy for the years ahead. Though many Republicans ran on economic issues in 2010, many of those economic issues have taken a back-seat to fiscal ones in 2011. Our fiscal health definitely affects our economic health (a collapse in the US bond rating would, for example, be very economically traumatic), but our economy also affects the nation's fiscal sustainability.

Arguments over how much government stimulus spending could be effective for rebooting the economy have been in the forefront of left and right discussions of the economy. Yet I think another (often unspoken) issue for many Republican debates about economic policy is the meaning of the Bush economy. Was it a time of great prosperity---an economic model to look back on with esteem---or was it much more mixed?

For one faction, the Bush years were fundamentally an economic success. There was a near-meltdown at the end, but the economic growth throughout that period can be isolated from the 2008 collapse. While there were problems with a housing bubble and excess spending, the economic policies of 2001-2009 on the whole led to real growth and prosperity. This faction has considerable power on the right. One sees, for example, commentators on the right often point to the Bush tax cuts (of 2001 and 2003) as kicking off huge economic growth, and use that claimed growth in order to argue for more tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, in the future.

Another faction on the right has a more pessimistic view of the Bush economic record. While this faction acknowledges the benefits of some of the tax cuts and other aspects of the Bush record, it also suggests that much of the growth of the Bush years was fueled by debt and the financialization of this debt. The housing bubble, inflated by federally-encouraged easy access to credit, allowed for a glut of money to flood the economy and pay for jobs in realty, construction, landscaping, retail, and so forth. This borrowed money was in turn leveraged by would-be financial wizards in various hedge funds and banks. While the fit of borrowing did create the illusion of growth, it was the equivalent of a middle-class family remortgaging its house to go on European vacations and buy a Bentley and gain a world of short-term luxury: it came from borrowing against the future, perhaps an amount that could never be paid back. The realization of the scope of this debt hit in 2008, and the story of 2009, 2010, and 2011 has been the transfer of this indebtedness from the private market to the government. TARP and other bailouts cycled through the debt of private banks, and now Americans, rather than flipping houses, collect multi-year unemployment benefits. Before, private borrowing fed the economy; now, public borrowing does.

For those of the first faction, the economic path ahead is fairly clear: get a Democrat out of office, keep cutting taxes for upper-income earners, cut government spending (or not), and we're back to Bush prosperity circa 2004.

The path is less clear for those of the second. For them, the real economic growth of the past decade has been anemic at best, and they are less sure that tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% should be the foundation for Republican economics. Such tax cuts may have a role to play, but they are not enough, especially in light of the spiraling inequality and economic stagnation in the American economy. But apostasy from tax cut monomania leads to a host of questions. Following this path may lead to the challenging of numerous elite orthodoxies---on regulatory, trade, and financial policies, among other areas.

The factions outlined above are not exclusive, nor are they totally comprehensive, but I think the difference between these two points is an important one for Republican economic discussions. A vision for the way forward is often shaped by a view of the road before. At a time when Obama's stimulus has failed by its own standards and the conventional wisdom of Democratic and Republican elites has fallen so sorely short, many conservatives are pondering a free-market way to renewed prosperity. How much of this way forward will involve Bush economics remains to be seen and debated.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jacobins in the GOP?

One might note within many ostensibly conservative discussions about the debt ceiling a strain that comes far more from Leon Trotsky than from Edmund Burke. One of the principal tenets of Burkean conservatism is the importance of avoiding Armageddon: crises are best held at arms' length, and revolution should be the measure of last resort.

Not raising the debt ceiling now could very likely be Armageddon: it would immediately force the government to spend no more than it took in in taxes. In 2010, tax revenue covered not even 60% of federal spending, so over 40% of the federal budget would have to be cut NOW to make up for it. Unemployment benefits---ended. Air Force jets---grounded. You need heart surgery, grandma? Maybe next year.

Not raising the debt ceiling would not necessarily lead to defaulting on the debt: the US could still make its interest payments. However, some prominent Republicans are now suggesting that even defaulting on the debt wouldn't be that bad. Since the election of George Washington, the federal government has never defaulted. Is it really worth throwing that legacy away to make a political point? Defaulting on the debt would very likely lead to higher interest rates and make the debts of private individuals as well as those of many governments even more onerous. An outright default could wreak havoc on the domestic and global financial systems.

Such an outcome could be a sure way to reduce the Republican party to the party of the 30% and make it radioactive for years to come.

And that political price would be by far the least problematic result of that scenario for allies of traditional liberty and conservatism. Deficit spending may perhaps be an important reason why we have not seen turmoil in the streets a la Greece, Egypt, and the waning days of the Roman republic. In terms of employment, this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. The social safety net is being strained in extraordinary ways, and the sudden cuts required by not raising the debt ceiling could be the equivalent of cutting it away. With those cuts to institutions that people have built their lives around (such as Social Security), a huge cross-section of this nation could erupt in rage.

Mob outrage is almost the polar opposite of classical American conservatism, and, if we did come to such public turmoil, there is no guarantee that the result would be a more economically free society.

One realizes that much of the debate over the debt ceiling is an exercise in partisan cynicism. Every Democrat opposed raising the debt ceiling in 2006, while almost every Republican (including the leading opponents of raising the debt ceiling) supported the raise in 2006. Meanwhile, almost every single House Republican has de facto pledged to raise the debt ceiling by voting for the Ryan budget, which gives us trillions of dollars in more debt over the next few years. House and Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed nearly a trillion dollars in tax cuts and stimulus spending at the end of 2010. The premise of those tax cuts and stimulus spending was that they would push the economy along, even though those measures will, in the short term at least, add to the debt. By their votes, Congressional Republicans have declared that this nation can handle more debt.

The whole debate over raising the debt ceiling is also, in part, a game of chicken: Republicans want to force more spending concessions and potential entitlement "reforms" from Democrats. But something of the complexity of entitlement reform is perhaps the last thing that should be rushed; Republicans should not want entitlement reform to replicate Obamacare (and other measures), when Congress is voting on unread and uncomprehended bills.

Ironically for authentic opponents of debt, not raising the debt ceiling and defaulting on the debt could make the federal debt that much worse. One of the driving forces for federal debt over the past few years has been the poor economy: the economic slow-down, with its resulting decrease in tax revenue and encouragement of government spending on unemployment benefits and so forth, is probably the single biggest contributing factor to our current deficit. The poor economy is an immediate dagger aimed at the fiscal heart of this nation.

In order to keep from hitting the debt ceiling, Republican leaders may find it wise to offer their support for a relatively small increase of the debt ceiling (say a few hundred billion or even a trillion dollars). Classical conservatism teaches that, sometimes, if you can succeed in delaying a crisis enough, your prudence can ensure that there will be no crisis at all. Sometimes that strategy fails (witness the Civil War), but it can often succeed. And even if delay fails, sometimes that delay allows you time to gather your forces to help you cope with the eventual crisis; at least the Civil War didn't happen until the union was strong enough to weather such a war. Many of the trappings of the current federal government are sustainable, especially with modest long-term reforms. The long-term fiscal situation of the nation may be somewhat scary, but it can be improved. Kicking the can down the road isn't always a bad thing, not if it gives you time to solve the problem. From a classical conservative perspective, inciting a crisis now in order to avoid a potential crisis in the future may be a bad trade.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Romney Agonistes

It's perhaps hard not to feel some sympathy for the situation Mitt Romney has found himself in. By the close of the 2008 Republican primary, he was seen as the standard-bearer of conservatism, picking up the support of the likes of Ann Coulter and Jim DeMint. Yet now, he finds himself attacked as a lefty RINO and utter traitor to the conservative cause---for Romneycare, a measure he backed in 2006. Romney's record as governor did not change from 2008 to 2011 (he stopped being governor in 2007), but the perception of the conservative commentariat has. Notoriously derided as a flip-flopper, Romney has now found that some in the right-leaning punditocracy have flip-flopped on him. And these attacks on Romney emphasize not merely how the partisan optics have changed since 2008, which they have, but often criticize his politics on a much deeper, ideological level.

The Massachusetts health-care law has become an albatross around the neck of the man who could maybe almost be the Republican front-runner. The passage of Obamacare made health-care reform a central litmus-test issue for grassroots conservatives. The fact that the Obama White House boasts of similarities between Romney's reforms and Obamacare is not going to endear Republicans to Romney.

From the perspective of free-market conservatism, the reforms Romney sponsored have not been a resounding success. The rate of health-care uninsurance in the Bay State has dropped significantly, which is good (over 98% of the Commonwealth has health insurance). Wait times have potentially increased a little, though trends for longer delays for receiving care were in place before Romneycare passed. But costs are exploding. Romney's Democratic successor, Deval Patrick, is now looking to create a regulatory infrastructure to control insurance rates (and thereby doctor pay) as a way of coping with these skyrocketing bills. With unchecked Democratic power in Massachusetts, further state control of health-care delivery may be only just around the corner. Unless further reforms are made, Romney's health-care reform may prove to be quite the shot in the arm for private health-care in Massachusetts: a lethal injection.

So Romney's big speech on Thursday may prove to be a necessary but also somewhat desperate gamble. Faced with the (perhaps unfair) public perception that he is an opportunist who will shift in whatever direction may benefit him the most, Romney seems to have decided that he cannot utterly repudiate the Massachusetts health-care law. The fact that he has spent so many years defending these reforms would give a repudiation now an especially high political price.

Either a total defense of Romneycare or a total repudiation of it could damage his image in the eyes of grassroots conservatives and potential swing voters. Successfully resolving the health-care issue could help scrape away some of the veneer of artificiality so many voters have doubts about while also burnishing his conservative bona fides. Here are some thoughts about what Romney might want to achieve politically in this address:

Make clear the distance from Obamacare: Romney may attack Obamacare as inefficient, destructive, problematic, and so forth, but he should particularly emphasize those features of it (such as the 50-state mandate) that differ from the Massachusetts reforms. Attacking Obamacare is bound to win applause from righties. But Romney's attacks will ring hollow if he has not posed enough plausible distance between his policies in Massachusetts and those of Obama.

Build on the strengths of Romneycare: There are some positive, free-market features of the Massachusetts health-care law, which the Heritage Foundation praised. Romney could tout those.

Show technical expertise: The ability to maneuver through complex bureaucracies will be key for any potential Republican administration. Romney has a wealth of experience in running large organizations and a considerable proficiency with the details of policy. His speech on Thursday can showcase those skills. This speech doesn't have to be---and probably shouldn't be---a total wonkfest, but a suggestion of Romney's wonky tendencies would play to his strengths as a credible, center-right technocrat.

Move the debate forward: This is perhaps the most important political objective for the speech. If Romneycare dominates his Republican primary narrative (including both his campaign and what is said about his campaign), Romney loses. Game over. In this speech, Romney needs to change the topic to present a forward-looking approach to federal health-care reform (which he looks likely to do). Romney knows that even the all-out repeal of Obamacare will not be enough for our nation's health-care system, which does need reform. Moreover, every serious Republican candidate is probably going to talk about repealing Obamacare. By focusing on a specific set of policies for a way forward, Romney can distinguish his candidacy from the rest of the pack. For his political survival, Romney must make this campaign about the future.

Moreover, the right does need creative ways of trying to reform the health-care system to make it more affordable and efficient. Such a tangled web of government/non-profit/for-profit institutions has been set up that any reform will have to be as careful as possible to avoid any drastic and unpleasant unintended consequences. By focusing on the future of health-care reform (both for the private market and for Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs), Romney can keep the past from sucking all the air out of present debates.

This could be a pivotal speech for Romney. If Romney can prove his viability on the health-care issue, he could start to solidify a core of support. If he cannot resolve the public perception of his health-care policies, he may find himself limping along and find the path to the nomination that much harder. Moments of testing can make or break a candidacy, and this may be one such moment.