The NeverTrumpers, Reasonable Politics, and Panic About the National Debt

by Neil H. Buchanan

The national debt is about to take center stage once again.  More accurately, an uninformed and opportunistic shouting fest about the national debt will soon consume Republicans and the pundit class in the United States.  These things never go well, and the next farce will probably outdo everything that has come before.

The reason that debt obsession will again grip the nation is that we are quickly reaching the date when the statutory debt ceiling will have to be increased to prevent an economic and constitutional crisis.  We are currently living through another period in which the Treasury Department is using so-called extraordinary measures to allow the government to pay the bills that it has already incurred, measures that had been forecast to run out in late March or early April.

But because Republicans front-loaded some of the cuts in their disastrous and regressive tax bill -- and especially because Donald Trump's Treasury is dutifully changing withholding rules so that people "see" their beautiful tax cuts right way -- fewer revenues are coming into the government's coffers, making it necessary to deplete the remaining budgetary slack more quickly.

We are now looking at a drop-dead date of early March, or about one month from now.  Before we reach the point where there is an imminent crisis, however, I want to take an opportunity here to discuss whether there are people on the political right in this country who would be willing to have a sane conversation about budget deficits and the national debt (or, for that matter, about anything at all).

I am thinking in particular of the NeverTrumpers, that hardy band of lifelong hard-right conservatives who have held out against the debasement of their movement -- and the destruction of the country and world that we all share -- by continuing to oppose Donald Trump.  Are their sensible views about Trump's threat to the rule of law an indication of non-extreme views about economic policy as well?

This is an important question because much of the talk among both liberals and conservatives who oppose Trump often turns to the hopeful idea that a new center-right party could emerge to replace the Republican Party after it inevitably implodes.  When the fever breaks, this story goes, the conservatives who never got on board with Trump in the first place will be joined by those who awaken from their pro-Trump zombie states, together renewing a reality-based conservative movement.

In a column several months ago, I noted that the NeverTrumpers seem mostly to be neoconservative foreign policy hawks who differ little from Democratic foreign policy hawks (of which there are many, unfortunately) as well as some small-c conservatives who are rightly shocked by Trump.  I focused on Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for The Washington Post who writes the "Right Turn" blog and who has been among Trump's fiercest critics.

A quick scan of the the topics of Rubin's numerous posts each day shows that she spends most of her time focusing on the Russia investigation and criticizing Republicans for being such cowering fools when it comes to Trump.  There is a lot to be said about all of that, of course, and Rubin's writing confirms that this really should not be a left-right dispute.  True conservative patriots ought to despise and fear Trump as much as other patriots do.

That, however, leaves open the question of whether NeverTrumpers like Rubin are merely saying that even though they like the ever-more-conservative policies that the Republican Party has come to embrace, they cannot abide the larger dangers that Trump poses.  If so, this intramural dispute would reduce to a general version of the "but Gorsuch" argument, which is where conservatives all delight in having stolen a Supreme Court seat and installed the most extreme justice since Clarence Thomas but point fingers at each other about whether the price was too high.

If that were the whole story, there would be little room for optimism.  If Trump leaves office for any reason (and I do mean "if"), NeverTrumpers and Trumpists could quickly reconcile and coalesce around an extreme right-wing agenda that would be as unpopular as ever but freed from the taint of the orange-hued blowhard who is currently destroying the party's brand.

In that world, conservatives would rally behind Senator Tom Cotton or Vice President Mike Pence and go back to their vote-suppressing, gerrymandering, antidemocratic ways.  If so, then Democrats and liberals more generally should simply gird for battle, because the post-Trump conservative movement would look exactly like the pre-Trump conservative movement's most extreme elements.  No common ground would exist.

In that earlier column, however, I concluded that, "[o]ther than a nervous tic regarding budget deficits (which I will discuss at length in a forthcoming column), Rubin could fit easily into any non-Republican policy discussion."  Rubin is not merely appalled by the hackishness of Trump's appointees or by his cult of personality.  She has written persuasively against the Republicans' tax bill because of its regressivity.  She rejects Republicans' willful ignorance on climate change, evolution, and everything else.

Before I get to that "nervous tic" regarding deficits and debt, I should note that I have no idea how many Rubins are out there.  She seems to think that there is a large core of conservatives who are either currently reasonable or could be brought back to reality, which carries with it the hopeful assumption that the evidence-allergic elements of the conservative movement can be shrunken and then ignored.

That may or may not be true, but I am willing to give Rubin and her compatriots the benefit of the doubt for current purposes.  Let us assume that she is one of a large proto-movement of conservatives who would like to have a political discussion based on commonly agreed-upon empirical facts that can be mustered in support of logical arguments, rebuttals, discussions, and (when we are lucky) rough agreement and even compromise.

Even if all of that is true, it would be helpful to know whether these anti-crazy conservatives have any blind spots.  Perhaps they do reject, say, the efforts by religious conservatives to make birth control less available, and perhaps they understand that refugees are not criminals or Islamist sleeper cells, all of which is a hopeful sign.  But where might things go off the rails?

Because I am an economist, my spidey sense tends to tingle when I encounter indications of right-wing conventional wisdom regarding economic policy.  Here, the NeverTrumpers' public record is understandably thin (because there are so many non-economic issues to discuss), but it is not promising.

Only this week, for example, Rubin embraced the Republican shibboleth of deregulation.  When I say that she embraced the hoary claim that deregulation will cause the economy to grow, I should note that she did so by making two anti-Trump arguments.  She notes that the economy has not actually been growing faster under Trump's anti-regulatory assault, but more importantly, she highlights a claim from a right-wing think tank that Trump is not really doing all that much deregulation after all -- and where he is deregulating, his people have instead imposed "restrictions."

Why is this worrisome?  Rubin wrote: "You don’t get a growth spurt from slowing the growth in the number of regulations, or increasing the number of restrictions."  In other words, Rubin is saying that a genuine assault on regulations truly is the ticket to increased growth, but the problem is that Trump is a fraud.  True, Trump is a fraud, but it takes a faith-based belief in the Deregulation Fairy to believe that there is any connection between regulations and economic growth.  That is merely conservative wishful thinking that makes CEOs happy.

And what about the national debt?  Throughout the Trump period, Rubin has been pushing simplistic anti-borrowing orthodoxy, cheering when people like Senator Bob Corker claimed that the Republicans' tax bill should not increase the debt (a commitment that, it later turned out, Corker was willing to repudiate by voting for the debt-increasing bill).  Everything would be better, Rubin claimed, if only everyone would focus on the debt.

There is, of course, a good version of that argument.  The Republicans' tax bill increased deficits and the debt in a way that will harm everyone but the richest people in the country.  That is a bad reason to borrow money.  But there are good reasons, and even though people like Rubin pay lip service to the idea that borrowing for public investment can be good, their orthodoxy shows through in troubling ways.

Most recently, Rubin enthusiastically endorsed House Speaker Paul Ryan's longstanding scaremongering about a debt crisis.  Describing the "mountain of debt both parties have created," she wrote a State of the Union speech that a responsible president would supposedly have given, which included this passage: "[A]nother financial crisis looms large — the debt crisis. It is irresponsible and unwise to pass a mound of debt on to our children and grandchildren."

To clarify, there is a difference between a debt crisis and a debt ceiling crisis.  The latter, which (as I noted above) we will soon confront, involves a politically manufactured refusal by the government to pay people, threatening to undermine the global economic system by causing the government to default on its obligations.  Such a crisis would be caused by stupid political posturing in the shadow of a stupid and unnecessary law.

But a debt crisis is a different thing entirely.  It is an event caused not by political maneuvering but by financial markets' sudden refusal to lend money to the United States government.  It is the ultimate scary campfire story for fiscal conservatives, in which the U.S. becomes "Greece, Greece I tell you" because of this supposed mountain of debt.  That is what Ryan and his followers have been claiming would happen ever since Barack Obama became president.

Perhaps, however, Rubin was merely taking poetic license and using the word "crisis" to dramatize what more sober-minded people argue, which is that increasing the debt for bad reasons makes it more difficult to increase the debt for good reasons (for example, to upgrade our infrastructure or to provide needed stimulus to fight the next recession when it inevitably arrives).

Even that argument has its flaws (which are beyond the scope of this column), but even if Rubin is merely being dramatic, she is still beating the drum for debt orthodoxy.  For example, she frequently touts the ramblings of deficit scolds, and in her imaginary State of the Union speech she envisions a wise president creating "a commission to update and refine the Simpson-Bowles report setting forth a plan to lower and control our debt."

All these years later, there are still people who think that "Simpson-Bowles is Magic"?  We are not going to be able to respond to Ryan and the Republicans when they inevitably attack Social Security and other crucial bulwarks against middle-class decline if we keep saying that deficits and debt are worse than cancer.

I should emphasize that these economic policy disagreements are not as worrisome as so much else on the Trump/Republican agenda.  But if we are trying to imagine a post-Trump future in which a reconstituted center-right party comes back to its senses and tries to govern responsibly by engaging honestly with the center-left (at most) party that is the Democratic Party today, it is not encouraging to see that NeverTrumpers are all in on economic orthodoxy.  I hope that we can do better.