By Joshua Holland
Believing their own spin, the GOP appears to have over-reached since the last election, alienating swing voters as it pursues a profoundly reactionary agenda.
At first blush, it’s difficult to grasp why all but four Republicans in the House would go on record endorsing a budget plan that would cost the economy millions of jobs, effectively end Medicare and result in deep cuts to Social Security, roll back new regulations on Wall Street and raise taxes on the middle class while slashing the rates paid by big business and the wealthy. It’s especially tough to understand given that we’re entering the 2012 campaign season, and their budget has no chance of becoming law.
But that’s what happened last week when the GOP-controlled House passed a budget outline based on the radical plan hatched by Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
A poll conducted last week found that, “when voters learn almost anything about [the Ryan plan], they turn sharply and intensely against it.” And why wouldn’t they? According to an analysis by the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the Republicans’ “roadmap” would “end most of government other than Social Security, health care, and defense by 2050,” while providing the “largest tax cuts in history” for the wealthy.
Not wealthy yourself? Well that’s too bad, because the plan would also “place a new consumption tax on most goods and services, a measure that would increase taxes on most low- and middle-income families.” According to the Tax Policy Center, about three-quarters of Americans — people who earn between $20,000 and $200,000 per year — would face tax increases if the GOP’s scheme became law.
The New York Times called the budget, “the most regressive social legislation in many decades.”
In addition to making “entitlement” a dirty word, the Ryan bulldozer would go much further in knocking down government programs to achieve its goals. It would cut food stamps by $127 billion, or 20 percent, over the next 10 years, almost certainly increasing hunger among the poor. It would cut Pell grants for all 9.4 million student recipients next year, removing as many as one million of them from the program altogether. It would remove more than 100,000 low-income children from Head Start, and slash job-training programs for the unemployed desperate to learn new skills.
Conservatives are spinning this monstrosity as a “serious” attempt to address growing budget deficits, but the new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans would result in rising deficits as far as the eye can see. According to CBPP’s analysis, “the debt would continue to grow in relation to the size of the economy for at least 40 more years — reaching over 175 percent of GDP by 2050. Even by 2080, the debt would still equal about 100 percent of GDP.” (That’s about where it stands today.) Ryan (who thinks Ayn Rand “makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism) admits his proposal is less a budget than it is an ideological “cause.”
It would be a painful cause to advance. Economist Ethan Pollack estimates that the Medicaid provision alone – just one small part of this radical restructuring of the social contract – would cost the American economy 2.1 million jobs over the next five years, the vast majority of which would be shed by the private sector.
Last fall, the Democrats attempted to tie Ryan’s proposal to the GOP caucus, but Republicans distanced themselves from Ryan’s “roadmap.” “It’s his,” then minority-leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters during the campaign. “I know the Democrats are trying to say that it’s the Republican leadership [‘s plan], but they know that’s not the case.”
But they certainly own Ryan’s “roadmap to poverty” now, prompting head-scratching from political observers. Ezra Klein, noting that in the last election, “seniors turned out in big numbers, and Republicans carried voters over 65 by an astounding 21 points,” wondered whether the GOP can “take on Medicare and survive”? (The CBO says that by 2030, seniors would end up paying 70 percent of their health costs out of pocket under Ryan’s plan, but that assumes insurers will cover them, which is anything but a given.) And Reuters’ James Pethokoukis suggested that Ryan’s plan may prove to be “a 73-page suicide note” for the party.
If that proves to be the case, it will be the result of a party believing its own political spin. For years, the American Right has portrayed itself as representing “real America,” as Sarah Palin put it. They’ve long characterized the U.S. as a “center-right” nation full of people who hate “big government,” and they’ve portrayed popular social safety-net programs as somehow being foreign, if not unconstitutional signs of “creeping socialism.”Last year, when they swept into control of the House, they convinced themselves that the American public had enthusiastically handed them a mandate.
Believing their own spin, the GOP has dramatically over-reached since then, alienating swing voters as it pursues a profoundly reactionary agenda. We saw it at the state level – as Talking-Points Memo noted, “Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (R), Ohio’s John Kasich (R), and Michigan’s Rick Snyder (R) have seen their approval ratings fall to the point that polls show them losing hypothetical do-over elections with the candidates they beat last year” – and now it’s beginning to show in the national polls.
Last week, a Public Policy Polling survey revealed that those “fickle independents” who sent the Tea Party Congress to Washington “are turning against the GOP in a big way” just a few short months later. “Exit polls showed Independents supporting the GOP by a 19-point margin last year at 56-37,” noted the pollsters. “Now only 30 percent of those voters think that the Republican-controlled House is moving things in the right direction, compared to 44 percent who think things were better with the Democrats.”
In the real world, Republicans won last year’s popular vote by a 3-point margin, getting 21.6 percent of the vote while 18.6 percent went for the Dems (and almost 60 percent stayed home). And another reality, long understood by anyone who reads the polls, is that while people respond positively to the idea of limited government in the abstract, when it comes to specifics people love big government and most, if not all of what it does. They want a government that will educate their children and put out forest fires and pay for their million-dollar cancer treatments and make sure that big chemical companies aren’t poisoning their water and keep them from having to eat cat food after they’ve put in 50 years in the workforce.
That’s why so much conservative rhetoric about the economy is based on airy, nonspecific claims of defending our “freedom” and “liberty.” They’re on solid ground appealing to these lofty ideals. And the reason many Republicans were cautious about embracing Ryan’s Roadmap last year—and why Democrats were eager to tout its supposed virtues—is that it was not only the embodiment of modern conservative thinking about the roles of private enterprise and government but, as Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, put it, the plan represents an “intellectually honest document,” and, as such, “has real numbers and it puts forward real proposals.”
That’s problematic for conservatives—a much harder sell than some ideologically spun notion of preserving our “freedom.” And now the American people are getting a taste of what conservatives’ preferred policies would look like in concrete terms. Any losses the Republicans suffer next November as a result will be a fitting punishment for their hubris – for believing their own spin.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America). Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.