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The Ryan Budget and the Republicans Turn to the Austerity of Their Past

Mitt Romney’s 45-minute convention speech devoted about 250 words to his prescriptions for the economy, his main rationale for wanting to become President. And those prescriptions are the same stew of low taxes, more trade deals, education vouchers, drill-baby-drill, and budget-balancing that every Republican Presidential candidate promises in their speeches.

Even when they end up winning on that message, the promises often bow to reality. The biggest contrast comes in the difference between low taxes and deficit reduction. Low taxes they can handle, and they do. Deficit reduction isn’t their game; the Democrats have been handed the mantle of the “party of austerity.”

THIS, I’ve finally figured out, is why the Ryan budget is so troubling and concerning to the Republican establishment. Not the base, mind you; they love its mix of cruelty and high-minded myths of producer class success. The base has basically advanced into the House to the degree that the Ryan budget could pass twice, albeit in a more circumscribed form the second time, at least with respect to Medicare. It’s still a deeply austere document. Medicaid and children’s health spending would have to drop from 2% of GDP now to 1% of GDP in 2050. Everything else – with exceptions for Medicare and Social Security – would have to drop from 12.5% of GDP to 3.75%. That’s a 70% cut. And when you consider that spending on the military would have to remain constant, it’s an 80% cut. (If you believe Mitt Romney’s vow that military spending will never go below 4% of GDP, it’s OVER A 100% CUT.)

The Romney plan, like every plan in the Republican nomination fight, was cribbed from the Ryan budget. And while it’s kinder and gentler, it’s more like a 40-57% cut on the spending side, ex-Medicare, Social Security and the military. In short, Romney has been infected by the spending cut bug from the Ryan budget. Even if these are campaigning and not governing documents, a substantial amount of spending reductions would have to be ushered in just to look credible.

We can talk about the policy of this (if the tax cuts are big enough, it’s more of that “reactionary Keynesianism,” but with real consequences; we’re seeing the effects of a shrunken public sector play out right now). But let’s go back to what Corey Robin said about the politics. After years of “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” after years of twisting themselves into knots with dynamic scoring and the Laffer curve and the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves and all the rest, Republicans have begun to believe their own bullshit about limited government. And there are some people who recognize that for the danger that it is. I found this profile by Suzy Khimm of Ryan’s relationship with Jack Kemp to be incredibly revealing:

When Paul Ryan began ascending as a young congressman on the House Budget Committee, his old mentor, Jack Kemp, was concerned.

“Don’t go down that path, Paul!” Kemp warned him, according to economist Lawrence Hunter, a former Kemp aide […]

“When he saw Paul heading down the budget path, it caused him great concern that Paul had gotten bitten by the austerity bug,” said Hunter, formerly chief economist for Empower America, the think tank where Ryan worked as Kemp’s policy aide.

Kemp’s warnings had a friendly and avuncular tone, his colleagues recall. “He would chide Paul that while it was important to remember the spending side, it was more important to remember the growth side,” said Bill Dal Col, former president of Empower America. “Would he be harsh about it? No, it was not his nature.” But the policy differences were real.

Kemp remembers the 1960s. He remembers the path of the Republican wilderness. And he remembers the whole of the Democratic commitment in the 80s and beyond to take away Santa Claus. None of these are good prescriptions for a political party.

So what happens when BOTH parties decide to take away Santa Claus? That’s when you get your grand bargain. Heck, even David Koch is talking about raising taxes a bit to engender a big compromise. The conservative base has austerity on the brain. The Democrats have been playing in this sandbox for thirty years. The tribalism within the electorate is at an all-time high, making it difficult for the parties to be punished for this behavior. The conditions are being set.

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David Dayen

David Dayen