Josh Barro didn’t leave conservatism. Conservatism left Josh Barro.

May 24, 2013

I know Josh Barro. Josh Barro is a friend of mine. Josh Barro does not climb trees and throw coconuts at you, as the Atlantic's graphic alleges. But he really, really, really likes talking about state pension systems. That part is true. And, these days, he doesn't come across as much of a Republican. That part is also true.

But is that his fault? Or the Republican Party's?


Remember when this guy passed Obamacare? (Jewel Samad/AFP-Getty images)

Over the last few years, the Republican Party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic Party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative. The result is that the range of policies you can hold and still be a Republican is much narrower than it was in, say, 2005. That's left a lot of once-Republican wonks without an obvious political home.

Health care is the most obvious example. The basic architecture of the Affordable Care Act is, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, a Republican idea. It was first proposed in a 1993 plan that had 20 Senate Republicans as co-sponsors. It was passed and implemented by Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. It was supported by Newt Gingrich. Through much of this time, Democrats viewed it with skepticism: They wanted something closer to single payer, and it seemed borderline offensive to insist that Americans buy products from for-profit insurers. But key Democrats dropped those objections in order to actually pass health reform.

Republicans could've pocketed the Democratic concession as a win. They could've celebrated the triumph of their ideas and the Democratic abandonment of single payer. They could've used the Affordable Care Act as a vehicle to push some of their other health policy initiatives, like medical malpractice reform, capping the employer tax exclusion, and spreading health savings accounts.

Instead, they abandoned every idea even vaguely related to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, they pretty much abandoned all ideas related to universal coverage, or even big expansions of coverage. They decided some of them were downright unconstitutional. Today, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor can't even get high-risk pools past his members. The health policy space on the right is radically narrower than it was a decade ago. If you're a Republican who hasn't been willing to change your positions on those issues, you're a heretic today.

Health care isn't the only example. Remember this?

There was a time when Republicans were leading the way on ideas to fight climate change. The first cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions was introduced into the Senate by Sen. John McCain. The McCain/Palin ticket included a cap-and-trade plank. Some Republicans, like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, supported a carbon tax.

There's no serious support in today's Republican Party for doing anything about climate change. Even Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who made headlines during the election for saying he believed in global warming, didn't want to do anything about it. Today's Republican Party doesn't want a cap-and-trade plan or a carbon tax or even money for renewable energy research. Whereas a decade ago a policy wonk who worried about the future of the earth could comfortably fit in the GOP, today, anyone who wants to do anything serious about climate change has been written out of the party.

It doesn't end with health care and climate change. Back in 2008, President George W. Bush pushed for and signed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. In 2009, there were a variety of Republican stimulus plans. Back then, Republicans could believe in deficit-financed stimulus during an economic downturn. Today, that would get you driven out of the party as a Keynesian spy.

And while it's not exactly a new position, the GOP's intense commitment to the anti-tax pledge is a real problem for policy wonks with even a passing understanding of what's driving deficits. In my experience, most Republican policy types will tell you, behind closed doors, that the anti-tax dogma is strategic and the Republican Party is just smartly negotiating for the most possible entitlement cuts. They know the taxes are needed eventually. This requires basically believing every elected official in the Republican Party is a liar.

As the Republican Party's range of acceptable policies has narrowed, the Democratic Party's range has expanded. Stimulus based entirely on tax cuts? It's not their preference, but they'll take it. Market-based approaches to environmental regulation? Sure, why not. Capping the employer-based exclusion for health care? Of course. Hundreds of billions of dollars in entitlement cuts to help reduce the deficit? Uh-huh.

If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that's not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I've written before, is that President Obama's record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.

A lot could be written on why the Republican Party has been so quick to abandon these positions. I'll leave that for another time. The point here is that it's happened, and it's left a lot of policy wonks who could've easily fit into the Republican Party a decade ago in a tough position.

The choices for Republican policy wonks are stark. You can take the approach of Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru and evince a continual disappointment that the Republican Party doesn't embrace more new ideas and be constantly on the lookout for glimmers of hope that never quite seem to herald the coming of dawn. Or you can take the approach of Barro, or David Frum, and hammer the Republican Party for ceding so much important ground. Either way, the underlying problem is that today's Republican Party, from a policy perspective, occupies a much narrower space than even 2005's Republican Party. The change has been quick and severe.

This, by the way, is why I'm down on the terms "liberal" and "conservative" or "left" and "right" in today's Washington. Too often, the terms are used as shorthand for "person who mostly agrees with Democrats" and "person who mostly agrees with Republicans." If Gingrich or Romney in 2005 could be counted as a liberal today, something has gone wrong in the way we're labeling the political spectrum.

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