Over at TAPPED yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta asked a compelling question: how, exactly, can we really expect to hold Bush and his minions accountable for their serial acts of misgoverment? And over at TPMCafe, Mark Schmitt responded by making a strong argument that today’s Republicans escape accountability because, well, they don’t really give a damn what anybody thinks about them other than on general election days.Maybe I’m just consumed with anger at the administration and its congressional allies right now, but I think Mark’s basically right. Most of these people have no concept of “accountability”–in terms of short-term performance, long-range consequences, the judgment of history, or even public opinion. Their only benchmark is progress towards their own ideological goals, which are “starving the beast,” destroying the very possibility of meaningful bipartisanship, radicalizing permanent institutions like the judiciary, the military and the corporate sector, and keeping Americans afraid of the world and each other. That’s why they’ve relied so heavily on abuse of power; it’s the only way to perpetuate their power without compromise or accountability. And that’s why they are so uninhibited by most considerations of truth or decency. In fact, I would argue that their most important tactical consideration has been to destroy the possibility of accountability by short-circuiting all the signals whereby a healthy society normally judges its leaders. Any source of objective measurement has been systematically discredited as inherently ideological: scientists are secularist fanatics; the media are elitist liberals; the judiciary is full of anti-Christian activists; the opposition party is anti-American. We’ve all had much fun with the conservative characterization of “liberals” as “reality-based,” but it’s no laughing matter: the essence of Rovism is to eliminate any zone of rational persuasion and force Americans to pick sides in an identity politics of real and perceived privileges under imaginary assault. Years ago, a friend of mine from Alabama observed that what bugged her about Republicans as people is that they had the subtelty and sensitivity of hammerhead sharks. So the question is: how do you fight a hammerhead shark, particularly a wounded hammerhead shark? Clearly, you can’t go very far negotiating or reasoning with this kind of beast; you just become chum. But I don’t put a lot of stock in the reigning opinion of so many Democratic bloggers that the answer is to become sharks ourselves. I’ve always opposed the idea that Democrats can win a selfishness competition with the GOP, offering our government benefits versus their tax cuts; they’ll win every time if voters are asked to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of what they think they are “getting” for their tax dollars. Nor do I believe, in the end, we can out hate them or out thug them; even if that course was not morally repugnant, it’s politically self-defeating; the ultimate sell-out to Republican values.So if we do not happily cooperate with the GOP in reducing all politics to our team versus their team, and our “truth” versus their “truth,” to what higher standard can we appeal? And that gets back to the problem of accountability in an age with few uncontested facts and no credible referees to keep a score card.Our task can be summed up as this: we have to rebuild accountability, brick by brick. That requires relentlessly putting forth a message that reminds Americans of their real and tangible interests, individual and collective, and then measuring GOP governance, and GOP candidates, accordingly. This effort will naturally involve presenting Democratic alternatives to meet the accountability standards we propose, which means dealing aggressively with entrenched (if generally false) negative stereotypes about our own party. And ultimately, the “accountability moment” will indeed have to happen at election time, or sufficiently in advance of election time to convince Republicans they are at risk not only of losing seats, or losing power, but losing a political argument with epochal consequences, just as they did during the Great Depression. The good news is that the whole Republican identity politics game is a house of cards based on the perception that Bush and the GOP are competent stewards of a threatened status quo ante of moral certainty, economic growth, and American power. Iraq and Katrina–and perhaps the impending cascade of ethical disasters–could damage those perceptions and greatly aid a Democratic effort to remind Americans of what their government should actually stand for.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
It’s one of the more comical aspects of the deadly serious game of chicken that House Republicans are playing on the debt limit, but it’s worth pointing out, as I did at New York:
As the United States lurches toward a possible debt default thanks to House Republican hostage-taking on legislation needed to extend or suspend the debt limit, it’s increasingly evident that (as my colleague Jonathan Chait observed) the hostage-taker is strangely reluctant to name a ransom. Indeed, the initial Democratic strategy in this complicated chess game was simply to force House Republicans to say exactly what kind of spending cuts they propose to make in exchange for allowing a debt-limit measure to wobble its way to Joe Biden’s desk.
It’s easy to mock GOP lawmakers for the brainlessness, or maybe cowardice, of their effort to make Democrats identify the spending cuts their opponents want. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell tans the elephant’s hide with considerable panache:
“Republicans have Very Serious budget demands. Unfortunately, they can’t identify what any of those demands are.
“They say they want to reduce deficits — but meanwhile have ruled out virtually every path for doing so (cuts to defense, cuts to entitlements, wiping out nondefense discretionary spending, or raising taxes). …
“Republicans say they want lower deficits — in fact, they have pledged to balance the budget (that is, no deficit at all) within seven or 10 years. But they have not laid out any plausible mathematical path for arriving at that destination. They promise to cut ‘wasteful spending’ … but can’t agree on what counts as ‘waste.’”
In so quickly reaching this predictable dead end in answering the world’s easiest math problem, Republicans have one plausible line of defense: It’s how much of the public feels about fiscal matters as well. They really don’t like deficits and (especially) debt. But they really don’t like the kind of spending cuts that Republicans are talking about either (tax increases, of course, are categorically off the table for the GOP and have been since the George H.W. Bush “Read my lips: No new taxes” debacle).
A September 2022 poll from the deficit scolds of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that Americans are up in arms about all the borrowing:
“A 31-month high of 83% of voters are urging the president and Congress to spend more time addressing the national debt, with the biggest jump among those under age 35 (8 points to 85%).
“More than eight-in-ten voters (81%) also said that their concern about the national debt has increased. Nearly three-in-four voters (74%) feel the national debt should be a top-three priority for the president and Congress, including 65% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 86% of Republicans.”
From 40,000 feet, all that red ink looks pretty alarming, it seems. More recently, this very week, the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal found a majority of Americans stamping their feet about it:
“Most Americans oppose raising the federal debt ceiling without accompanying cuts to federal spending, a new RMG Research poll finds.
“Sixty-one percent of 1,000 registered voters in the survey said Congress should either raise the debt ceiling with spending cuts (45%) or refuse to raise the ceiling at all (16%). Only about a quarter (24%) said Congress should raise the ceiling without accompanying spending cuts.”
To House Republicans, the great symbol of runaway spending is the “monstrous” $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December. Many of them claimed during the fight over Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership bid that “the American people” were outraged by the measure despite the fact that it cleared the Senate, House, and White House. Perhaps they were thinking of a Twitter poll conducted by Elon Musk that showed that 75 percent of respondents opposed the omnibus bill.
The sad truth is, however, that the more specific you are in identifying items in one of those “monstrous” bills, the more support they command from the public. In 2021, Gallup published a summary of public-opinion research on what was then a $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Democratic budget-reconciliation proposal (soon whittled way down to $2.2 trillion and then to a net-negative figure in the ultimately enacted Inflation Reduction Act) and found that its provisions were very popular despite the debt they required:
“[S]everal recent polls … ask about the bill in a broad, umbrella fashion, and all find majority support. A Quinnipiac poll conducted July 27-Aug. 2 asked, ‘Do you support or oppose a $3.5 trillion spending bill on social programs such as child care, education, family tax breaks and expanding Medicare for seniors?’ and found 62% support, 32% opposition. A Monmouth University poll conducted July 21-26 asked about both the initial infrastructure bill and the new $3.5 trillion bill, describing the latter this way: ‘A plan to expand access to healthcare and child care, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.’ The results were similar to the Quinnipiac poll, with 63% in favor and 35% opposed …
“A progressive think tank, Data for Progress, conducted an online poll among likely voters July 30-Aug. 2, with a much more detailed 130-word description of the bill, including in the question wording a bulleted list of six specific proposals in the plan, the $3.5 trillion price tag and even a description of the ‘reconciliation’ procedure necessary to pass it. All of this (and the online mode, and the sample of likely voters as opposed to national adults) also didn’t seem to make much difference; 66% of likely voters in their sample supported the plan as described, while 26% opposed it — similar to the Quinnipiac and Monmouth results.”
So the minute you get into the particulars of Democratic-proposed spending bills, public concerns about debts and deficits tend to fade. And oh — there’s another problem for Republicans on the fiscal front: voters like the idea of higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations to pay for popular spending measures.
The lesson for Republicans is clear: Their crusade for fiscal discipline is popular, so long as it is very general and you exclude higher taxes on the rich as a possible solution. No wonder politicians like McCarthy want Democrats to be the ones who name the GOP’s price for letting the U.S. economy get through the year without calamity.