Political commentators will likely say that Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race proves that the United States is still a center-right nation and that Obama and the Democrats have to be more bipartisan. But Brown’s victory says a lot more about the incoherence and contradictions of today’s Republican Party when it comes to matters of economic and fiscal policy. The failure caucus has just added another member.
Since the recession and financial crisis started, Republicans have consistently voted against the stability and recovery efforts, dating back to the fall of 2008, when they still controlled the White House. John McCain broke off his campaign to blow up the first bailout bill. Once President Obama was elected, Washington Republicans went into opposition. Not a single Republican in the House voted for the stimulus bill, while only three Senate Republicans (including Arlen Specter) did so. Many of the Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill then rushed out to get earmarks for their districts and states. In the fall, only a single Republican voted for the health care bill. And in late December, only one Republican senator, George Voinovich, voted to increase the debt limit, a move needed to avoid default on government debt.
Throughout, there’s been a consistent chorus: Deficits are too high, but we must cut taxes (a move that will increase the deficit), and we must not cut Medicare spending in any way, shape, or form (a move that will increase the deficit), and we must not raise taxes (a move that would narrow the deficit). The Bush-era Medicare prescription-drug benefit funded entirely by deficit spending is fine, but a broader package to expand health insurance coverage that generates long-term fiscal savings would be disastrous. The bailouts were wrong but so are proposals to recoup bailout funds through taxes on banks.
In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find an elected Republican official who can speak intelligently and accurately about budget issues. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is supposed to be a comer in national politics, but his piece in the inaugural issue of the Daily Callerwas a howler. Budget analyst Stan Collender smacked him down for arguing that a $1.4 trillion deficit could be narrowed primarily by reducing “discretionary spending in real terms, with exceptions for key programs such as military, veterans, and public safety.” Columnist David Brooks recently tried to elevate South Dakota Sen. John Thune into a serious thinker about fiscal issues. “He doesn’t have radical plans to cut the federal leviathan. He just wants to restrain the growth of government to bring deficits down.” In fact, Thune, like his colleagues, has no plans to cut the federal leviathan or bring deficits down. When I called his office in December to ask if Sen. Thune had ever laid out any specific combination of spending cuts and revenue enhancers that could reduce the deficit, the answer was a polite, genial no. Last summer, at a dinner with a group of conservatives where I heard frequent complaints about $9 trillion in deficits over the coming years, I asked the assembled if they could come up with budget cuts and/or tax increases that would cut $900 billion from the projected deficits—one-tenth of the total. The response: silence.
Irresponsibility is one of the perks of being in the minority. You don’t have to pass anything or govern. But there are limits. If you’re for tax cuts and you’re against cutting spending on Medicare and defense, you shouldn’t be able to call yourself a deficit hawk. And if your reaction to the biggest financial crisis and the deepest recession since the Great Depression was to refuse to assist the rescue efforts, you shouldn’t be taken seriously as a policy thinker.
Brown is entirely in tune with his future Republican colleagues. He has railed against the proposed $500 billion cuts in Medicare and opposes the proposed tax on banks. In this op-ed, he says that the stimulus has failed to create a single job, rages about the rising debt, and advocates an across-the-board tax cut while offering no specifics on how to reduce the debt.
Nothing constructive, nothing coherent, nothing concrete, and no support for anything President Obama has done or plans to do. Brown will fit right in.