It has long been a conservative article of faith that it is possible to reduce government spending on domestic programs — including entitlements — without also reducing military spending or raising taxes. That belief is the centerpiece of the right’s fiscal bible, former speaker Paul D. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future.” First introduced in 2008, the Roadmap has gone through many iterations, but it has always retained these three core elements. Republicans have thus had more than a decade to persuade voters to adopt this. They have failed miserably.
A version of the Roadmap for America’s Future was adopted after the tea party-infused Republican takeover of the House in 2010. Nothing serious was done to implement it. It was in the background as Republicans and President Barack Obama battled over reducing the deficit in 2011. Before then, the best they could come up with had been the Simpson-Bowles grand bargain that would have raised taxes and cut spending to bring the budget closer to balance. But this deal was shot down by each party’s base, as Republicans led by Ryan opposed tax increases and progressives opposed entitlement cuts.
The compromise was the 2011 law that tightly controlled federal discretionary spending and established the so-called sequestration caps. These caps have proved so tight that leaders of both parties, including Ryan, negotiated three budget deals in recent years to waive the caps in exchange for higher military and domestic discretionary spending. The current deal is simply the latest in this game of fiscal musical chairs.
Conservatives can’t point to any Republican-controlled state that has done anything close to what they propose to do in Washington. Republican-led states have cut taxes, but they have always done so at the margins, and only after spending on popular programs has risen to reflect popular demand. The one significant example of a Republican governor who bucked the trend was Kansas’s Sam Brownback, who resisted efforts to trim his 2011 tax cut after it failed to increase revenue enough to maintain spending. Brownback lost that battle because many of his allies lost party primaries in 2016 to pro-tax moderates, who then teamed with Democrats to override Brownback’s veto of their bill repealing his tax cuts.
Nor can conservatives point to their own party’s voters for support. President Trump was the antithesis of Ryan in the 2016 primary, campaigning on a platform that removed any talk of cutting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Despite the nearly uniform attempt of all party factions to derail his candidacy, Trump won.
Rank-and-file Republicans may want lower spending, but they clearly prioritize other issues such as immigration, trade, tax cuts and religious liberty. It is also clear that moderates, both the Obama-Trump blue-collar types and the suburban Romney-Clinton voters, prefer much more spending than does the GOP’s right. Without those voters, Republicans have no chance to win the White House or Congress.
David Stockman, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, foresaw this more than 30 years ago. In his 1986 book, “The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed,” Stockman noted that years of attempted budget cutting during the Reagan administration yielded only small reductions. He argued reluctantly that Americans had decided they preferred a mixed economy with greater stability at the cost of higher economic growth, and that taxes needed to be raised to avoid massive budget deficits.
Conservatives have resisted this diagnosis ever since, failing to significantly reduce the trajectory of government spending on their own during periods when they have held power. Contrary to common wisdom, this is not because the party has been led by a series of feckless cowards more interested in feathering their own nest than in fulfilling their promises. We have big government because the voters want it that way.
The way forward is pretty obvious. The Republican Party needs to show it understands what voters want by proposing a serious deficit-reduction package that includes tax increases on those who can afford it, in addition to a package of spending cuts. Ten years after Simpson-Bowles foundered, a new bipartisan compromise could achieve what a decade of futile gesturing has not: reduced deficits and moderate growth in government spending.
But that is in the future. House conservatives will predictably vote against this compromise and might even team up with “the Squad” and their progressive allies to defeat it. But it would only be a Pyrrhic victory even if it occurs, as any subsequent compromise would more likely include additional spending increases to attract the Democratic left, rather than cater to conservative wishes.
Incoming British prime minister Boris Johnson spoke on Tuesday about the Conservative Party’s ability to win Britain’s trust for most of the last century. He argued it was because the Tories balanced two noble values: the value of innovation and spending what one earns, along with the value of sharing among all members of society. U.S. conservatives would do well to heed those words and offer more balance if they ever want to be more than the gadflies of U.S. politics — always stinging the horse but never sitting in the saddle riding it.