House Republicans are circulating the results of a private poll that supposedly shows that stressing their goal of a “balanced budget” is a political winner for them in hotly contested House districts. Perhaps it is a politically strong message in certain districts, but in an overall sense, this is very revealing about the GOP predicament right now.
Perhaps the primary obstacle to any serious GOP makeover remains this: The public broadly agrees with Dems about the proper role of government and who should pay for it. Majorities don’t want serious cuts to our major retirement programs or any wholesale recasting of the basic social contract underlying them. Majorities support extracting additional revenues from the wealthy — mixed with judicious cuts that would not radically downsize social programs — to get the country’s fiscal problems under control. They support making the tax code marginally more progressive. But Republicans remain wedded to a dramatically different vision of the country’s fiscal and economic future, one that elevates the Paul Ryan blueprint as the ultimate ideal. Until this changes, no genuine makeover is likely in the area where the party probably most needs it — i.e., public perceptions that the GOP prioritizes the interests of the rich over the middle class.
The new found focus on stressing “balanced budgets” illustrates this perfectly. As the Politico piece reporting on the new GOP strategy suggests, this message is explicitly designed to avoid talking about the specifics in the Ryan budget. Note this tidbit:
With the kickoff of Washington’s budget wars, House Republicans are launching a politically ambitious — some would say risky — plan to balance the budget in a decade, while renewing their commitment to overhauling Medicare by turning it into a premium support program. Practically, it’s a plan they can’t walk away from. They’ve voted on some version of Ryan’s budget several times — if they reverse course, they’ll be attacked by Democrats as abandoning their policies and by the right as being cowards.
In the past, the center of gravity of the Republican political strategy was figuring out how to talk about their plan to overhaul Medicare. In 2011, they polled districts across the country, seeking a strategy for how to talk about Medicare. This time around, they polled 18 congressional districts, uncovering that the most effective message was, broadly, about balancing the budget.
This is an important passage. Republicans know they can’t abandon the Ryan fiscal vision because the right won’t let them — and because they just don’t want to — and they also know that they can’t talk about its specifics, either. Instead, they must stress only the general goal of balancing the budget, and on savaging Dems for not being willing to balance it.
What this gets back to is a basic truism about American politics, one that favors Republicans in some ways, and not in others: The public favors the idea of getting government spending under control in the abstract — hence the support for “balancing the budget” — but broadly disagrees with Republicans on the specifics of how to accomplish this. The new “balanced budget” strategy is explicitly designed to get around this problem by emphasizing the general idea of spending cuts rather than the Ryan plan’s specifics. But there is no willingness to rethink the party’s basic priorities to deal with it.
Yesterday’s big Republican National Committee “makeover” document recognized the need to do a better job connecting with the middle class. But as Jonathan Chait argues, it says nothing about rethinking the most important policies the GOP supports that actually do favor the rich. Along these lines, the most revealing line in the RNC document was probably this one:
We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel.
This one sentence says it all. The very “non-traditional Republican” constituencies the report itself identifies as ones the party needs to improve its standing among — Latinos, young voters, etc. — don’t believe the Democratic approach constitutes “redistribution-to-extremes liberalism.” When it comes to the broad ideological strokes — what should government do, and who should pay for it — these constituencies agree with the Democratic Party. But the fealty to the Ryan vision — which requires this approach to be caricatured in this way — makes any serious effort to deal with this impossible. Which is why Republicans — if Politico is to be believed — will have to resort to a strategy built around generalities about balancing the budget rather than on building public appeal around how they’d actually accomplish this.