Thursday, September 29, 2022

Content-Free Content and the Republicans' Commitment to Vacuousness

by Neil H. Buchanan

At some point during Donald Trump's temporary occupation of the White House, Republicans decided that they did not need to be in favor of any specific policies.  Instead, they only needed to be in favor of outcomes that people like, such as "prosperity" and "strength."  Suddenly realizing that they could simply skip over the means and directly embrace the ends, Republicans apparently concluded that they did not need to bother explaining to anyone how they would move us away from American carnage and toward the wonderful world of great-again greatness.

This was most famously on display at the 2020 Republican National Convention, when the party decided not to issue a new version of its quadrennial platform, saying instead that they were in favor of whatever Trump wanted to do.  That was a rather astonishing moment, because no one had ever confused a party platform with an action plan from a serious public policy think-tank.  Even endless platitudes had become too much for Republicans by 2020, however, because the most reliably safe defaults -- opposing tyranny abroad, supporting law enforcement, favoring increased foreign trade -- had all become too risky, given that Trump had to varying degrees abandoned all of those comforting standards.

Earlier this week, however, the would-be Republican Speaker of the House issued something that purported to be an agenda that his candidates could bring to the American people, the pretentiously named "Commitment to America."  Other than trying to recreate the electoral success that followed Newt Gingrich's contract on America in 1994, why did Kevin McCarthy bother to do this?  Why say anything at all?  Short answer: Because he did not in fact say anything.  For the longer answer, read on.

It was a surprise that the intellectual featherweight who currently leads the House Republican caucus made the choice to issue something resembling a campaign document.  After all, his counterpart in the Senate had infamously answered a question earlier this year about what Republicans would do if they win control of Congress in 2022 by saying, "I'll let you know when we take it back."
For all of McConnell's ability to control his caucus, he has in fact been frustrated by some of his members going off script, including Florida's Senator Rick Scott (who issued a semi-specific plan in February that was every Democrat's dream, given that it would have committed Republicans to passing tax increases on tens of millions of Americans and would put Social Security and Medicare at risk of cancellation) and possible future indictee Lindsey Graham (who recently proposed a national anti-abortion law, even as many Republicans were scrubbing their websites of their incendiary anti-woman rhetoric).

So what was the point of McCarthy's "commitment"?  I suppose that he and his colleagues might harbor some remaining sense of shame or embarrassment, or at least have a vague sense that it is not a good look to have literally nothing to say other than, "Biden bad" -- especially with gas prices having recently come down (which were, of course, beyond President Biden's control both when they were high and now that they are back where they started).

But shame and embarrassment stopped bothering the Republican Party a long time ago.  More likely, they are trying everything possible to dangle shiny objects in front of the press's eyes, given that Trump has made everything about himself again.  And to repeat, Republicans need to stop people from thinking about what they will do to women's bodily autonomy if they are ever in power again.

Whatever the reason, it is notable that McCarthy's campaign document is so utterly lacking in content.  Paul Krugman's summarized the vibe perfectly:

What’s my plan for the next two years? I will be happy, healthy and successful. What will I do to achieve these things? What are you, a Marxist?

I’ve now summarized the essence of the Commitment to America announced by House Republicans last week.
Krugman's point is that, whereas previous Republican plans were specifically awful, this is not a plan at all.  It it merely a series of statements about how good life will be for everyone, with no pesky details about how any of that will happen.

This is further evidence of the debilitating effect that Trump has had on the political party that he seized in a hostile takeover almost seven years ago.  Shortly after he had secured the 2016 presidential nomination, I wrote a Dorf on Law column in which I expressed amazed disgust at Trump's refusal to offer even the most minimal "I'll do A, which will work in the following way to cause B" story.  There, I quoted and expanded on some comments that I had made during a lecture in May 2016:
[I said:] "It used to be that even an ill-informed politician would try to offer some logical chain of cause and effect, explaining how his policy ideas would make the world better off."  Sorting through various possible examples in my mind, I suddenly thought of the Laffer mantra: "For example, a politician might say that cutting taxes will increase economic activity, which will increase tax revenue by more than enough to make up for the lower tax rates."

I then added: "Of course, that theory has been proven to be wrong over and over again, but at least it purports to be an explanation.  Trump, on the other hand, never bothers with an explanation.  He simply skips to the end: 'Trust me, it will be great.'  In fact, he not only dispenses with a step-by-step explanation, but he frequently does not even bother to tell us what the policy is that will make things great again."
One of the early policy failures of Trump's single term in office was the Republicans' attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  They had been saying for years -- long before Trump came along -- that they would "end Obamacare," but they were always silent when it came to saying what they would enact in its place (if anything).  Much like today's attempt to blame the Democrats for inflation, crime, and anything else they can think of, the Republicans' attacks on the ACA had no affirmative content.
Even so, there was some acknowledgement that they would need to come up with a plan.  When they could not do so, the more savvy Republicans thanked their lucky stars when three of their senators joined every Democrat in voting to end the repeal-and-replace charade.  They had nothing, so they did nothing (other than eliminating the "mandate," which was ridiculous but ultimately not a disaster).
Throughout all of that, Trump blithely insisted that he would come up with something that was better than the ACA in every way.  By his lights, his plan (whatever it was, always to be released "in two weeks") would be cheaper, universal, and most importantly "not Obamacare."  Again, however, the point is that he did not even bother with a Laffer Curve-like argument.
Notably, his refusal to do so cannot be explained by a sense that Republicans can no longer maintain their public commitments to indefensible claims.  After all, even the supposedly moderate Susan Collins fully embraced the evidence-free belief that tax cuts (for the rich) pay for themselves.  Republicans are still perfectly happy to defy the reality about the Laffer Curve -- which, to be clear, is an even more insane lie than their other go-to lie that regressive tax cuts trickle down to help everyone.
It is not, therefore, that Republicans are unwilling to repeat a big lie again and again and again.  Obviously not.  But McCarthy's vaporware approach to announcing a governing platform is not even based on demonstrably false if-then logic anymore, because he and his colleagues learned from Trump that the whole logic-and-reasoning thing is unnecessary.

To be sure, political campaigns appropriately channel aspirations, and not everything needs to be backed up by itemized to-do lists.  Even the most gauzy arguments, however, have typically offered some sense (at least when evaluated in the pertinent political context) of how an aspiration might be pursued.  Saying that Black Lives Matter would not have any political content out of context -- which is why even many Democrats stumbled early on by saying, "Yes, all lives matter," attempting to be inclusive but missing the larger message that "we need to emphasize specifically that Black lives matter because our society so often acts as if they don't" -- but in context, it at least means reforming police practices to prevent the killing of unarmed Black citizens.

When a Republican responds that "blue lives matter," then, we do in fact know what they are saying, and it carries a specific (and harmful) policy agenda with it.  And paradoxically, even though epithets like "woke" have no meaning, when a Republican vows to be anti-woke, we have a very good idea who the targets of their hatred are and what policies they might adopt.
But in McCarthy's so-called Commitment, most of the statements have no content even when read in context.  For example, in the section labeled "An Economy That's Strong" (which ours already is, which is in fact why the Fed is trying to weaken it, but never mind), the third and final item on the list is: "Strengthen the Supply Chain and End Dependence on China."  That is supported by all of 57 words, none of which even give the slightest sense of what Republicans would do about "[t]he frightening supply shock of baby formula this year" (which are the first nine of those 57 words).
What would they do to strengthen the supply chain?  I follow these matters very closely, and I have no clue whatsoever what Republicans would be inclined to do.  Trump's default was neo-mercantilism, which in this case would mean "ending dependence on China" not by strengthening the supply chain but by taking bolt-cutters to it.
Is that what Republicans would do?  Again, we know what Republicans mean with some of their vague rhetoric, just as we know what "economic justice" means for progressive Democrats (redistributive fiscal policy, including taxing wealth).  But what Trump blundered into, and what McCarthy and other Republicans have now adopted, is the strategy of making statements that are entirely devoid of anything that would allow a person to say, "This is what they'd enact, and this is what they say will happen next; but does that make sense?"

As I noted above, the initial suspicion upon McCarthy's release of his document was that Republicans had decided that they needed to change the subject.  They thus rolled out something with a grandiloquent title to take up air time that might otherwise have been spent on abortion, Trump, or other matters that are politically problematic for Republicans.
Even so, it seems important to note that Republicans no longer even pretend to go through the motions of offering a cause-and-effect cover story.  They learned many worse lessons from Trump, but it matters that Republicans now channel Trump by saying nothing more than, as Krugman put it, Americans "will be happy, healthy and successful."  Who could be against that?