The Insiders: Republicans are losing the economic argument

July 23, 2013

Republicans are greeting President Obama’s summer push on the economy with derision. To Speaker Boehner and others, the president seems like an aging rock star whose recycled hits became stale years ago. Yet he still tours, playing to smaller and smaller arenas.

While the president is unlikely to be celebrated in history for his economic record, his presidency marks the end of Republican orthodoxy on economic matters dating to the late 1970s. The Republican frame for 40 years has been that Democrats are the party of tax, spend and regulation, while Republicans are the party of tax cuts, austerity and deregulation. It’s hard to let go of this message; for many years, it worked. But then we had the presidency of George W. Bush and the campaign of Mitt Romney. Bush won because he was a compassionate conservative, the supposed antidote to the callousness of Newt Gingrich. But he governed, with the exception of the prescription drug benefit, as an orthodox Republican, pursuing tax cuts for the wealthy and loose regulations. The deficit exploded and the economy collapsed. While these policies cannot be blamed exclusively for these economic outcomes, the rosy and ridiculous Republican assumption that cutting taxes on the wealthy and reducing regulation lead to prosperity was finally and brutally exposed. The trickle in trickle-down dried up, and Republican economic policies were blamed.

Mr. Romney didn’t help the Republicans’ economic argument either. For years, Republican candidates effectively had screamed “class warfare” whenever Democrats had pointed out the GOP’s affinity for helping those at the top of the economic ladder. Mitt Romney’s candidacy seemed to prove that such arguments had validity after all; the 47 percent tape hardened suspicion into belief that Republicans favored one exclusive class over all others.

Republicans today on the economy are where Democrats were in the late 1970s: discredited and devoid of ideas that can form a winning coalition. It took more than a decade of “new” Democrats, including Gary Hart, Tim Wirth, Bill Clinton, Mike Synar and Al Gore, to put forward ideas and proposals to grow the economy through investment in education, technology, infrastructure and stimulative tax breaks for the middle class. The Clinton-Gore years of prosperity did not resolve the argument in the Democrats’ favor, but it became another data point in voters minds: witness the retrospective acclaim for Bill Clinton’s handling of the economy, which remains a foundation of his wife’s potential candidacy.

Perhaps the new Republican ideas and approaches are germinating in some think tank or will be revealed soon on the presidential campaign trail. Until then, Republicans will lose the economic argument. A weak hand beats no hand every time.

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Richard Cohen | July 23, 2013