Conservatives Won't Actually Cut Spending

Steve Hayward is correct, in "Modernizing Conservativism," that the tactic of reducing revenues to force some later reduction in the size of government -- recently referred to as "starve-the-beast" -- has failed. But it has not failed because of some exogenous force that pushes government spending up or because of the residual power of liberals, who at several points in the last three decades have been all but completely vanquished. It failed because conservatives have not actually done anything to cut government spending. Some may want to, especially those not running for office, and I'll give Hayward the benefit of the doubt that he is one of them. But a controlling faction of the conservative governingcoalition wants to cut taxes, period, though not all taxes (hence the recent attack on the 47 percent of households who, thanks to decades of healthy bipartisan cooperation, pay no federal income taxes), just taxes on the wealthiest, and on investment income.

That same controlling faction is demonstrably less committed to cutting entitlement spending than liberals are. Consider this: the very highest point of conservative power since the 1920s was the 108th Congress from 2003-2005, when conservative Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress with sizable margins (even excluding the remnant of old-fashioned "moderate" Republicans like Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee), and were unafraid to use their institutional power to the fullest. What were the major domestic accomplishments of conservatism given free rein? Another huge tax cut, this one skewed even more toward the wealthy than the 2001 cut, and the largest and most irresponsibly designed expansion of the welfare state since the Community Action Program of the Great Society -- the Medicare Part D program. Forgive me if I have trouble taking seriously the idea that conservatives really, really believe in cutting spending, but something gets in their way. They themselves get in the way.

It's true that for a brief moment this year, House Republicans tied themselves to the mast and voted for Representative Paul Ryan's budget that would have ended the direct entitlement to Medicare -- a cut as carelessly designed as the Part D expansion. But they knew the Ryan budget would never become law, they edged away from it quickly, and given countless opportunities to actually cut spending in 2011, they walked away from all of them, lest they be made to swallow a tiny tax increase.

Adopting a tired media convention, Hayward applies a strict parallelism to describe liberalism. Liberals, he claims, borrowing from William Voegeli, want an unlimited welfare state, which can only be paid for with enormous tax increases. Conservatism can reform itself (that is, give up starve-the-beast) only if liberals get over our commitment to protecting and expanding "the welfare state" at all times and at all costs.

I don't recognize the liberals depicted in Hayward's article, or in Voegeli's book, which is otherwise interesting. I see a Democratic Party that is desperate to find some basis for conversation. I see a party that cut wasteful Medicare spending in the health reform bill, and suffered from opportunistic Republican attacks on the "$500 billion Medicare cut" as a result. I see a party that means-tested Social Security, in 1993, by taxing the benefits of wealthier recipients. No conservatives supported that move. I do know a few liberals who say today that we shouldn't do anything to cut Medicare, but their strongest argument is on the basis of political tactics: "If we cut Medicare, the Republicans will just run vicious attack ads against us targeted at seniors." It's hard to respond to that because it's true. The conservative quest for total political victory makes that tactic a perfectly acceptable means toward the end.

I also don't see liberals who advocate "the high level of taxation...that would be necessary to support the future welfare state." I see liberals who would like tax rates to return to the levels of the prosperous Clinton era, with equitable treatment of income from all sources, together with substantial reforms in health care delivery that reduce Medicare and Medicaid costs. That's a very different thing.

The one big thing that conservatism has to rethink is not its strategy on spending and taxes, but its culture-war model of politics, with its semi-secessionist attitude toward democratic negotiation. Hayward takes a small step in this direction, encouraging conservatives to give up the dream of total annihilation of liberals. But his model of politics is still one in which the losers "consent" to the policies of the winners. In fact, we've made the greatest progress when liberals and conservatives (not just Democrats and Republicans) have found ways to talk to each other and work together. In the tax reform of 1986, the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the budget deals of the mid-1990s, neither side felt it was consenting to the initiatives of the other. They were finding ways to work toward a result that was better for each than the status quo. An even better, recent example is one that Hayward dismisses, but shouldn't: the enormous transformation of American education through the expansion of charter schools and teacher accountability. This didn't happen because liberals "consented" to conservative ideas or the other way around, but because they listened to one another, saw where there was merit in each other's ideas, looked at models that worked, and acknowledged those that failed, then adjusted accordingly.

There are some issues where people's viewpoints are irreconcilable and there's really not much to talk about. Those are the issues that you avoid talking about with the extended family at the Thanksgiving table. But not all issues are culture war issues. On entitlement spending, taxes, energy, and health care, conservatives can best modernize themselves by looking at an old model, Ronald Reagan, who knew what he believed, but also came to the table honestly looking for common ground.