Ruth Marcus
Columnist June 14, 2012

Consider the enlightening — and depressing — tale of two governors. One is the face of what the Republican Party could, and should, be. The other is the face of what it is and seems determined to remain.

The first governor, not coincidentally, has “former” before his name: former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The second is current and, fresh off his recall victory, continuing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Two weeks ago, Bush told the House Budget Committee that he would have taken the 10-for-1 spending cut and tax increase deal that the Republican presidential candidates unanimously, foolishly spurned at a debate last year.

“If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 in spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, coach,” Bush said. He added, tellingly: “This will prove I’m not running for anything.”

On Monday, proving that point yet again, Bush was at a Bloomberg View breakfast in New York, bemoaning the shrinking size of the GOP tent.

“Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground . . . would have a hard time, if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement,” Bush said. Reagan today, he added, “would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”

Perhaps by Walker. At a breakfast Thursday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, the Wisconsin governor declined the 10-for-1 tax deal that Bush would have grabbed at and dismissed the notion that the Republican Party needs to become more flexible.

His comments were unsurprising — run-of-the-mill Republican boilerplate along the lines of: “Tax increases are a bad choice,” “I just don’t believe the problem with government is that we don’t tax enough” and “There is a false choice out there between raising taxes and cutting services.”

The real falsehood is that it is possible to deal with the yawning federal deficit by choosing spending cuts alone. As a matter of practical politics, Democrats will not accept a cuts-only solution. More fundamentally, a cuts-only solution would require carving too deeply into essential government functions and services.

Walker points to his state-level experience, saying that for years residents were told they needed to choose: “Pay higher property taxes or your schools fail.” But by squeezing teacher pensions, he argued, that false choice was avoided.

Leaving aside the merits of such a move, the bigger issue is that it is not scalable to the federal budget mess. Eliminating every cent of waste, fraud and abuse would not produce anything close to budgetary balance. Tackling entitlement spending is necessary but not sufficient.

That debt reduction will require a balance of spending cuts and new tax revenue is the wisdom of every responsible entity that has examined the fiscal picture. Behind closed doors, some Republicans acknowledge this reality. After all, three sitting Republican senators voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan.

But too much of the GOP response is Walker-type happy talk about cutting spending and promoting economic growth to produce a miracle of near-painless debt reduction. “You’ve got to have growth and frugality,” Walker said. “You’ve got to have a pro-growth agenda, because you’ve got to grow your economy, which will increase your revenues without raising taxes.”

Walker’s case in point is Reagan. “Think about it,” he said. “Thirty years ago, the unemployment rate was 10.8 percent . . . the highest it had been since the Depression.”

Once Reagan’s tax cuts went into effect, “we saw the longest sustained economic boom in peacetime in American history,” Walker said. “There is a method out there. It was after slashing the marginal tax rate 25 percent. You put more money back in the hands of the American people, the American consumer, the American entrepreneur, it’ll have a positive impact on growing the economy. And in turn, you’ll get revenue.”

Except here is what Walker left out of his story: After Reagan cut taxes, he raised them — starting the very next year, spooked by deficits that seem quaint compared to today’s monster numbers. Ultimately, the Reagan tax increases took back about half of the cuts that Walker praises.

“Although he cut taxes when he could, he raised them when he had to,” economist Bruce Bartlett wrote of Reagan in an article last year in Tax Notes. Which is, sadly, more than can be said of Walker and most of his compatriots in the modern-day Republican Party.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com