The New Worn-Out Ideas

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 16, 2005

Who is running out of ideas now?

It has been a cliche of American politics for more than two decades that those poor, tired liberals were bereft of big thoughts and wallowing in a swamp of old commitments, old ideas and old promises. Their allies in the Democratic Party were thought to be similarly geriatric.

In 1989 a headline in the Outlook section of The Post confidently rendered this diagnosis on the liberals: "Tired and Defensive, They're Out of Ideas." In 1997 Charles Bray, who was then president of the Johnson Foundation, argued that liberal anemia had created the opening for a conservative jolt. "[T]he entry of new ways of thinking into the American intellectual bloodstream after two generations of liberals' monopolizing the public-policy debate has been good for the country," Bray declared.

Let's accept -- for the sake of argument, but also because the critique contained some truth -- that at some point during the 1970s, liberalism became tiresome, arrogant, unreflective and hidebound. Let's further stipulate that this image gave conservatives their opening to seem fresh, creative, exciting and all those other virtues that marketers love to claim for their products.

It can be asserted beyond a reasonable doubt that each of the disapproving words about liberalism in the previous paragraph now applies to conservatism. The most compelling evidence for this is the contorted, contentious and incoherent struggle by Republicans in Congress to produce a budget.

The Republican leaders may or may not pass their cut-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich budget. It takes a degree of political incompetence usually associated with Democrats for the side that wants to preserve the true spirit of Christmas to invite so many coal-in-the-stocking metaphors at this time of year.

But there is something more important about this failure. It marks the dead end of a worn, haggard argument that conservatives have been peddling for 30 years, ever since that energetic guru of supply-side economics, Jude Wanniski, published his first articles on the subject and his exciting 1978 manifesto, "The Way the World Works."

Supply-siders asserted that cutting taxes on the wealthy -- and especially on savings and investment -- would help everyone, including the poor, by promoting economic growth. Tax cuts would produce so much growth that they would pay for themselves. Since government programs were flawed, private investment was always more productive than government spending. And deficits, if they did come, need not worry us very much.

For many of us, this whole argument was always a highfalutin rationalization for giving the rich what they wanted, and often even more. Bill Clinton's economic policies should have definitively destroyed supply-side claims: Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy and cut the deficit, and an exceptional period of economic growth followed.

But it took until this moment in 2005 for Republicans themselves to realize (even if many won't acknowledge it yet) that the help-the-wealthy, damn-the-deficits approach doesn't hold together, either as policy or politics. They are learning that the public doesn't buy the idea that cutting taxes on dividends and capital gains should take priority over providing health coverage and child care for struggling Americans. The tax cuts, it turns out, don't pay for themselves. The poor have not fared well since the big supply-side tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

And given how much Republicans want to spend on defense, farm subsidies, homeland security, roads, bridges, subsidies for energy companies, a flawed drug program for seniors and lots of other stuff, there's no way they can cut enough from programs for the poor to offset the costs of their tax giveaways.

As a result, the Republican Party is fracturing before our eyes. Moderate Republicans know these cuts in programs for the poor are unsustainable. Very conservative Republicans want to cut spending far more than the rest of the party (or its voters) will allow. Republican leaders tilt this way and that, juggling this tax cut with that spending cut. In the process, they alienate just about everybody. The old faith is dying.

It took liberals a long time -- too long -- to adjust to the popular sense all those years ago that they were just trying to sell the same old nostrums. I'd like to hope that today's graying of conservatism will invite liberals to a new era of innovation. What's clear is that if Republicans and conservatives keep trying to sell their long-playing supply-side records in the age of the iPod, they'll confine their audience to antiquarians and ideological hobbyists. It's the way the world works.

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