Is Pure Partisanship a Principle?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Due to a timing glitch, my Dorf on Law post yesterday did not go out in a separate email.  Those subscribers who read DoL from an email feed, therefore, might have missed it.  The post, "Principles?" (link here), discussed my new Verdict column (link here).  In today's post, I will pick up on the larger theme that I discussed in those two pieces, which is whether there is any "principle" or set of principles that consistently drives the current (I dare not call it "modern"), radicalized Republican Party.

One way of looking at recent moves by national Republican leaders is, as I pointed out yesterday, that we are finally seeing what really matters to them.  They are toning down the culture wars stuff (although they are certainly going full-bore on anti-choice legislation at the state level), they have returned to their eternal intra-party struggle between isolationists and global militarists (a debate that was temporarily on hold during the Bush II years), and they seem to be getting the message that they simply cannot win elections going forward if they continue to espouse bigoted views on immigration.

Leaving aside their continued insanity about guns, the big remaining issue on which Republicans have actually become more extreme since the 2012 elections is budgetary policy.  They have taken their tax and spending proposals from the last two years -- which were already more extreme than I ever thought we would see in U.S. politics -- and run even further to the right.  My two pieces yesterday were mostly devoted to trying to figure out whether there is a principle that seems to guide the Republicans in their views on taxes and spending.

Although there is a certain flavor of federalism in their rhetoric, with the usual assertions about the evils of "overpaid bureaucrats in Washington running people's lives," the gestalt of the Republicans' statements on economic policy is much more anti-government than anti-federal.  It is difficult to imagine that they would not be just as upset about the substance of the policies they decry if carried out at the state level.  They do not merely dislike progressive federal tax rates; they hate progressive taxes.  They do not merely oppose spending on federal programs that supposedly cause people to become dependent; they want to cut everyone off.  The federalist move is merely a matter of strategy: turn federal programs into federally-supplemented state programs, then cut the federal supplements, then allow the states to cut the programs.  The point is to cut people off from government-run programs, not to choose the right level of government to run such programs.

Perhaps, therefore, the principle that guides the current Republicans is nothing more complicated than "You're on your own."  Viewed in that light, one way to understand the Republicans' recent changes in policies and public relations is that they actually are more elitist than they are bigoted.  That is, they are more willing to put up with gays and immigrants than they are to help people who fly in coach class.  This is an odd twist on famed conservative economist Milton Friedman's claim that bigotry was likely to be driven out of the economy by profit maximization.  That clearly is not true of U.S. society in general -- or, at least, it is taking an awfully long time for the invisible hand to do its work -- but as a way to understand Republican leaders' views, it does now appear that they care a lot more about protecting their economic interests than holding a firm line on other issues.

This idea that everyone is on their own is especially interesting when considering issues on which Republicans' views seem to contradict themselves.  On the comment board of my post yesterday, a reader mentioned that the "Support the troops!" imperative pretty quickly gave way to rather obvious failures to support the troops.  That observation is correct.  For example, the delays for processing disability claims for military veterans have reached scandalous levels -- averaging nine months, and in some areas routinely approaching two years.  The most obvious way to fix this would be to increase funding to the relevant agencies, allowing them to hire more workers to process claims.  But that runs up against the anti-bureaucrat, anti-spending imperative, and so the troops and their families are out of luck.  You're on your own, even if you sacrificed for the good of the country.

If that is right, then we could at least imagine a way to make the Republicans happy.  Many Democrats seem surprisingly comfortable at least moving strongly in the direction of shrinking government.  Maybe they would not move as far and as quickly as Republicans would prefer, but there are plenty of Democrats in public office who agree with Republicans that the government is too big.  The Clinton Administration made it a major talking point that they had shrunk the federal workforce to its lowest level since WWII, for example.

And as I have been noting repeatedly, on this blog and elsewhere, the Obama Administration often talks in liberal terms, but on economic issues, Obama started right of center and has been moving rightward ever since.  He has been practically begging the Republicans to let him undermine Social Security.  On health care, he simply adopted their plan to insure everyone through private policies.  (The "individual mandate" was, of course, originally conceived in a hyper-conservative think tank.)  He argued for far less stimulus than was obviously necessary.  Even those who argue that political realities forced him to do those things (a claim that I find doubtful, at best) can certainly see that Obama has given Republicans a lot of what they have said they wanted, and he has tried to give them even more.

This is why it is so important actually to understand the principles on which the Republicans so firmly claim that they will not compromise.  As enjoyable as it might be to point out their many hypocrisies, it might at least be useful to know where their stopping point is.  People on the left often talk about how the Republicans keep moving to the right, even as Democrats try to meet them in the ever-shifting middle.  If we could really see just where the Republicans would go, it might at least be possible to know if any of it might be acceptable.  Instead, the goal posts keep moving.

Republicans do not, after all, take yes for an answer.  In 2009, Republicans demanded a deficit-cutting commission, and then they hated it after Obama created it.  Similarly, they abandoned Romneycare when it became Obamacare.  The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, in an appearance on Rachel Maddow's show last night, pointed out that Republicans currently claim that they want five things on budget/tax policy: (1) Cut deficits further, (2) Protect defense spending, (3) Cut Social Security and Medicare, (4) Simplify the tax code, and (5) Reduce upper-bracket tax rates.  As Klein pointed out, Obama has repeatedly offered Republicans the possibility of getting the first four of those goals, but they say no.

It is, I guess, possible that the extra-deep principle to which the Republicans are adhering is that tax rates on the rich should be reduced.  It is difficult, however, to imagine them agreeing to anything that Obama might offer.  Which brings up a different possibility.  Perhaps the principle that Republicans hold most dear is that they hate Democrats.  Klein reluctantly agreed with Maddow's characterization, that Republicans are "post policy, even some things that seem like constants don't actually matter to them, it's pure politics, just positioning themselves vis-a-vis the President, and not interested in a particular outcome for the country."

Moreover, it does not matter who the President is, so long as he or she is a Democrat.  Although it seems clear that Obama's unpopularity among Republicans is intensified by his race, the ferocity of the hatred that they heaped on the Clintons (which many of us hoped in 2008 was limited to people actually named Clinton) was every bit as crazed as what we are currently seeing.  Current policy outcomes are worse, because Democrats have spent twenty years trying to compromise and move to the right, but the underlying hatred by Republicans of all things Democratic is the key constant.

Is there a limit?  If Obama came out tomorrow, agreeing to end all entitlements, to eliminate taxes on the rich, to shut down everything in the federal government except the Pentagon and corporate welfare, to outlaw abortion and contraception, what would Republicans do?  One wants to imagine that Maddow and Klein are wrong, that the Republicans actually have an outcome in mind.  The party's leaders certainly spend a lot of time talking about defending their principles.  Other than hating anything that Democrats say, however, it is difficult to figure out what those principles might be.