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A Further Response To Avik Roy on Establishments

My original essay on the current divide between the GOP “Establishment,” on the one hand, and the Tea Party and other anti-Establishment factions, on the other, sought to explain the leading issue (the growth of spending and the size of government relative to the private sector), the proximate cause (the loss of trust that the GOP Establishment would make a serious effort to stem this tide) and the underlying history that led to the wide fissure currently visible in the party and the movement on the Right. As I noted in my followup essay, the loss of trust in the Establishment over spending is by no means the only such divide, but it’s the one that has brought longstanding tensions out in the open and has overcome the natural tendencies of Republicans and conservatives to defer to authority, hierarchy and gradualism. The break is not a sudden onset of irrationality, as some would have us believe, but an entirely rational response to a long and depressing history of failure to check the growth of federal spending, the federal entitlement state, and federal regulation, leading us to the point where our private sector can no longer carry the burden of a perpetually growing public sector.

RoyThis observation has led me into an argument with Avik Roy, a senior healthcare fellow at the Manhattan Institute, professional healthcare analyst and healthcare writer at Forbes and National Review, who insists that conservative voters who have lost faith after some six decades of unkept promises by Republican candidates to stem the tide of growth in government spending and regulation should continue to trust that this time, the promises of such politicians will be different because they have white papers and proposals that would lead to “entitlement reform” (note that Roy nowhere promises that any such reforms would actually reduce the ratio of public expenditure to private production). Roy relies on a false comparison: the fact that not all anti-Establishment candidates for office have offered substantive solutions to the growth of entitlement reform, whereas an ideal Establishment candidate would do so.

This is a straw man argument, and one that continues to ignore history, Congressional dynamics, the basics of negotiation and the actual facts of the current Presidential race. In fact, Roy’s analysis is impractical and detached from reality. The practical reality is that, without pressure and leadership from the anti-Establishment wing of the party, nothing will get done. And the long and dolorous history of prior efforts to restrain spending, entitlement spending and regulation amply justifies the mistrust of Establishment figures who offer purely theoretical solutions and refuse to take political risks to make them a reality.

Here is how Roy frames his preferred approach to reducing spending:

The ideal candidate, in fact, combines thoughtful policy proposals, persistence in the face of partisan opposition, wisdom in picking the most productive political battles, and the ability to persuade moderates and liberals to join the cause.

This sounds good in theory – I might phrase it rather differently, but that’s not far from how I’d formulate the best way to get major legislation passed – but the problem, as I have noted previously, is a persistent GOP failure to follow through on doing this to reduce federal spending.

In response to my point that Republicans have only once (in the case of welfare reform pushed by Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s, accompanied by reductions in federal spending as a percentage of GDP) ever actually made any headway in doing anything of the sort, what does Roy choose as his example of how his preferred approach would work in practice? Obamacare. I swear I am not making this quote up:

Did President Obama loudly campaign for single-payer health care in order to pass Obamacare? Quite the opposite: he sought to reassure voters that nothing would change for them. What succeeds in politics is to persuade moderates of the moderation of your positions, while laying the groundwork for longer-term structural reform.

The most cynical Democratic partisan would have difficulty coming up with a more tendentious retelling of the passage of Obamacare. As anyone who followed politics in 2009-10 could remind you, Obamacare was passed on a strict party-line vote, in an act of pure political muscle over the objections of an outraged citizenry, via a combination of procedural shenanigans, obfuscation of the contents of the bill, and bald-faced bribery. Nor did Obama obtain the large majorities needed to enact this show of political force by the methods Roy suggests; his victory in 2008 was triggered primarily by a financial crisis having nothing to do with health care, by public fatigue with his predecessor having nothing to do with health care, and by appeals to the “historic” nature of his racial identity as a candidate having nothing to do with health care.

There are three basic models for pushing major legislation. At one end of the spectrum is cooperation, which happens when both sides of the aisle have a common goal, and must put aside partisanship and mutual suspicion to work towards it. At the other – represented by Obamacare – is annihilation, which happens when one side wants something the other cannot possibly agree to, and wins by gaining sufficient power to make changes without the other party’s consent (this is not necessarily improper – elections have consequences – but it becomes problematic when fleeting majorities are used to enact permanent changes). But a lot of legislative business falls in the middle ground: negotiation, what happens when the two sides have opposing interests but it is not impossible to move one or the other off their intractable opposition.

Roy seems to believe that reductions in federal entitlement and other spending can be achieved through cooperation, but this has no basis whatsoever in reality. Anything that reduces federal spending is diametrically opposed to the interests of the Democratic Party. Oh, you may be able to find the odd Democrat willing to offer bipartisan cover, but look at how the party responds to Ron Wyden’s tepid efforts at outreach:

[H]is critics – and they are legion in Democratic ranks – say he’s a political opportunist promoting himself at the expense of the party and its values.

Asked if there was frustration among Senate Democrats with Wyden over Medicare, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told POLITICO: “I’ve heard that sentiment expressed.”

But he quickly added that he’s also heard “some say that initiating a bipartisan conversation that will preserve Medicare is worthwhile. So let’s see if the Ryan-Wyden approach meets that test.”

Privately, the criticism is more biting.

“Democrats believe in Medicare and, rather than bolster it, Wyden undermined a great issue for us all so he could grab a couple of headlines,” one furious Democratic source said. “Just embarrassing.”

At the opposite end, I would agree with Roy that annihilation of the Democrats’ power of resistance on Medicare reforms is unlikely and not even necessarily desirable, as the example of Obamacare suggests how unstable a program can be when the opposition party, backed with majority public support, remains dedicated to overturning the result.

That leaves negotiation, which is ordinarily how the sausage gets made in Washington and most state capitols: one side has the votes to get close to the goal line, then uses a combination of public pressure, threats and inducements to drag out enough bipartisan support to get a bill passed. Roy’s analysis, in addition to ignoring history and the current situation on Capitol Hill, fails to grasp the essentials of how a negotiation works.

As anyone who has ever participated in a negotiation knows, you bring the other side to the table by having positions that are both strong (you stand firmly on something clear and defensible) and credible (it’s believable that you would go to war for your position). Maybe you get everything you want, but if you don’t, standing on principle is a position of strength. It’s a truism of political brinksmanship that candidates who campaign on principle deliver compromise; candidates who campaign on compromise deliver squat. If you advertise your willingness to take a deal, any deal, you get what George H.W. Bush got in 1990: the tax hikes Democrats wanted, and a bunch of illusory promises in return about meaningless budgetary firewalls. The historically minded will remember that it was this deal that catapulted Newt Gingrich to prominence as a critic of Bush’s betrayal of his “read my lips” pledge.

A candidate who is unwilling to make the case for a principled position on the campaign trail is unlikely to convince anyone in a negotiation that he will stand on that position – he will get rolled the same way Mitt Romney got rolled in the health care negotiations in Massachusetts. Which is precisely how my argument about trust relates to the current presidential race. On the one hand, you have Newt Gingrich, who has a record of actually accomplishing entitlement (welfare) reform; Newt had his successes and his failures negotiating with the wily Bill Clinton, but he at least has has the experience of not coming away from the bargaining table empty-handed. (As Erick has noted, George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir that the Clinton White House was within 24 hours of caving to Newt on the government shutdown when Bob Dole caved and cut a deal for a separate peace.) Newt has been willing to talk about his substantive proposals on the stump, and despite the many reasons why a Newt campaign seemed implausible, his audiences have come away impressed by his substantive policy detail.

On the other hand, you have Mitt Romney, who campaigns in gassy generalities, recites his favorite patriotic songs on the stump, is quick to attack from the left any opponent who has the temerity to suggest entitlement reforms, and promises his audience:

“I understand a few of you here are on Medicare. Is that true? [Laughter]

“That being the case, I hope you tell your friends who always fear that Republicans somehow might go after Medicare. You can tell them a couple things. Number one: We will never go after Medicare or Social Security, we will protect those programs. But also, you make sure and tell them this. There’s only one president in history that’s cut Medicare 500 billion dollars. And that’s Barack Obama. And guess what he did it for? He did it to pay for Obamacare?

“So if I’m president, I will protect Medicare and Social Security for those that are currently retired or near retirement, and I’ll make sure we keep those programs solvent for the next generations coming along. We will protect America’s seniors and America’s young people with programs that are designed to keep them well and safe. And I will make sure that we protect Medicare and Social Security.”

This is not exactly how you build a mandate for entitlement reform.

Roy somehow manages to survey this landscape, ignore the actual records in office of Romney and Gingrich, ignore both candidates’ behavior on the trail, and pronounce that “[o]f the four Republican Presidential candidates who remain standing, the one who most comprehensively lacks the[] qualities [needed to accomplish spending cuts and entitlement reform] is Newt Gingrich.” Roy seems to have forgotten his own critique of Ron Paul, a critique I agree with: “Ron Paul votes against everything, knowing that he can, because his votes are inconsequential. Indeed, Paul actively detracts from true entitlement reform by claiming that we can balance the budget solely by slashing defense.” But even that aside, the fact that Romney is unwilling to sell voters on the need for, or benefits from, entitlement reform is proof positive that he is the candidate least likely to muster any popular consensus for anything other than massive tax hikes to prop up the system. At least Gingrich has a record of getting things done on Capitol Hill, a realistic sense of how to do so, and a willingness to take his case to the voters.

Roy’s proposed recommendation for conservative voters unwilling to trust Romney’s approach is to talk about Mitch Daniels, who is not even running. I like Mitch Daniels and respect what he’s done in Indiana, although I soured on him as a presidential candidate because he didn’t seem interested in running (and ultimately didn’t run), because he had a tin ear for major factions of the party such as social conservatives, and because his monotone delivery seemed unlikely to keep the public engaged in listening to him. If we’re talking hypothetical candidates, it may be my Northeastern-Irish-Catholic-lawyer speaking, but I’d prefer the approach of Chris Christie, who tells hard truths bluntly and confrontationally and wins the public’s respect by his willingness – like that of Newt, and unlike Romney – to engage in substantive argument about both policy and political philosophy.

(You don’t need Christie’s eloquence to follow this model; Scott Walker has gotten a lot done in Wisconsin by a willingness to take large political risks and the iron resolve to back them up at the negotiating table).

What’s more, Christie illustrates the real difference between getting significant reforms passed in a naturally red-leaning environment and a more politically difficult climate. The hardball of Washington today, where annihilation has made cooperation nearly extinct, is far more comparable to the challenges of governing a state as fractious and divisive as New Jersey than it is a state that has voted for a Democrat presidential candidate just twice since 1940. There are many things to like about restrained leaders of the past – but as politics has become more combative, and the press more willing to peddle falsehoods for their favored side, their utility on the national stage has decreased. I’m uninterested in a candidate who brings a white paper to a gun fight.

I have no doubt that Roy believes, in good faith, that simply embracing thoughtful written proposals and working with the same old personnel is sufficient to bring about bipartisan compromise in the nation’s best interests. But six decades of American political history argue that his solutions are doomed to grief without significant changes in the GOP’s willingness to do political combat to restrain spending. Anti-Establishment voters may not always have candidates equal to that task, but they nonetheless represent the last, best hope for forcing our political system to face the crisis at hand before it is too late.

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