In recent days, I have had a dream: that America has a real Republican Party, a party offering a serious right-of-center alternative to the Democrats. Such a contest of ideas would improve the public debate and offer Americans a real choice, not the cartoon campaign we have today.
Donald Trump had the opportunity to reset his campaign this week and managed to derail it. But forget the detour for a moment. Trump’s much-heralded speech laying out his economic policies was a mishmash of populism, hypocrisy and pandering. It promised protectionism, trade wars and tax cuts for the rich and proposed no changes to the United States’ fast-growing entitlement programs. It was ideologically incoherent and fiscally irresponsible.
When did this Republican intellectual decay begin? According to conservative writer David Frum in his brilliant book “Dead Right,” it started in the Ronald Reagan years. Historically, the Republican Party was all about fiscal discipline. Reagan had viciously attacked Jimmy Carter for racking up deficits and debt. In fact, by the end of Reagan’s two terms, the national debt had tripled.
Republicans came to recognize that, whatever it might say, the public in fact didn’t want cuts in government programs. The country was, in George F. Will’s phrase, “ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.” This was the Republicans’ moment of truth, Frum argued, and they blinked.
Since then, most Republican presidential candidates have promised the public huge tax cuts without any real spending restraint to pay for them. The result, of course, has been massive deficits. The only Republican who tried to adhere to some notion of fiscal conservatism, George H.W. Bush, was attacked and destroyed for this sin by conservatives led by Newt Gingrich.
Republican economic plans nowadays are simply not serious. In the primaries, the three main candidates of “the party of fiscal discipline” — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump — presented plans that added $8 trillion, $10 trillion or $11 trillion in debt over the next decade (according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center). Even the much-respected Paul Ryan proposed a plan with a $2.4 trillion hole in it. These vast gaps are papered over with magical assumptions of higher growth and the usual vague calls to end waste, fraud and abuse. (Whether you like or dislike Hillary Clinton’s economic plan, its numbers add up.)
Trump’s plans are a replay of these dishonest techniques. He proposes large tax cuts but of course doesn’t pay for them, assuming the usual bogus growth numbers to make them look better on paper. He promises to cut regulations, saying at a rally this week that he might reduce them by 70 or 75 percent, which is so absurd that I don’t think even he believes it. His added twist is protectionism, but even here the technique is the same. He makes wild promises that he would never be able to fulfill.
Imagine, instead of all this, a Republican Party that believed firmly in limited government — and proposed policies that were true to these beliefs. It could present a serious plan that rationalized America’s unwieldy and corrupt tax code, simplifying the structure, even cutting rates — but only to the extent these were actually paid for by increased revenues from closing loopholes, deductions and credits.
Imagine a Republican Party that focused less on tax cuts for the rich and more on improved access to the market for the poor and middle class. For example, a party that proposed not to eliminate Obamacare but to reform it using stronger market mechanisms, allowing greater competition and transparency in prices and services.
Imagine a party that presented specific plans to cut regulations that hamper the formation and growth of small businesses and encouraged large companies to hire more workers and make new investments (rather than engaging in financial engineering and stock buybacks). A party that encouraged states to get rid of the ever-expanding licensing requirements put into place to keep out the competition. (In the 1950s, less than 5 percent of jobs required a license to do the work. Today 29 percent do, at a cost of nearly 3 million jobs, according to University of Minnesota professor Morris Kleiner, who has studied the topic extensively.) As the Kauffman Foundation has discovered in surveying small businesses, they care far more about too many regulations than they do about their tax rates.
Political systems need debate and choices. But for these to be useful, both sides have to accept certain informal rules — that their proposals will be serious and coherent and that their numbers will add up. The United States would benefit greatly if the Republican Party were to focus on its core ideas, and be a substantive, market oriented, right-of-center party.
For now, it remains a dream.
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