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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Push Into the Abyss

Glenn Beck”s weird tutorial that ended this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference seems to have been a big hit among attendees. Yes, it’s a bit ironic that he expressed views highly similar to those of Ron Paul, whose student-driven victory in the CPAC straw poll was heavily panned and booed by the “regular” conservatives at the conference. Yes, some may have been put off by his constant use of Alcoholics Anonymous metaphors (people who need any form of government assistance are apparently just like alcoholics who haven’t “hit bottom” yet). But there really didn’t seem to be much dissent in this crowd with the idea that “progressivism” dating all the way back to Wilson and TR has been demonic, or that Republicans have to repudiate all forms of activist government if they want to get back on the paths of righteousness.
I was particularly struck by John Fund’s analysis of Beck’s appearance for the Wall Street Journal, which treated it as a constructive warning to Republicans against the temptations of governing.
It’s true that people like Beck and Paul, and most obviously the Tea Party Movement, are encouraging Republican politicians to take an ever-more-rigid position against government spending which, in combination with perpetual demands for both fiscal discipline and major new tax cuts, suggest a level of government retrenchment far beyond anything Americans have experienced since Hoover. But it’s surprising how few observers on the Right seem to be aware of the exceptionally perilous political direction of such talk.
Chris Bowers recently offered a useful summary of recent polling on specific cuts in government spending. And the bottom line is that Americans really, really don’t want them except in small categories like NASA and non-defense foreign assistance. And this is why symbolic anti-spending measures like never-to-be-enacted constitutional balanced budget amendments (Tim Pawlenty’s favorite panacea) and various “freezes” have always been so popular among GOP politicians. It’s probably poetic justice for conservatives that decades of anti-government demagoguery have convinced so many people that it would be easy to slash spending by attacking “waste” or “bureaucrats” or “welfare” or “foreign aid,” but the reality is that any serious attack on federal spending will have to include major cuts in defense; very popular domestic entitlement programs; or very popular domestic discretionary programs like public education and law enforcement.
So all the white-hot rhetoric about spending you hear from GOPers these days carries some pretty interesting implications, particularly for the bulk of Republicans who also favor a big escalation of the Afghanistan War (and perhaps a new war with Iran), and who have no prescriptions for economic growth other than still more tax cuts. I’m sure that Beck and Paul would have no problem calling for the abolition of Medicare and Social Security as they exist today, but are GOP politicians ready to follow? I don’t think so. And this is the real reason they struggle to articulate a governing agenda for 2010 and beyond.
Maybe John Fund thinks it’s good for Republicans to regularly get a kick in the pants from right-wing figures whose own views, if put to a vote, wouldn’t get support from more than a quarter of the electorate. But it looks to me more like a push into a political abyss. Maybe they can get away with fierce-but-vague rhetoric and opposition to Democratic initiatives for a while, but ultimately they will have to come right out and admit that the fiscal arithmetic of their own “thinking” would lead to a federal government more like that of the Coolidge administration (Beck’s favorite) than that of the Reagan administration. If they do, it won’t be Beck or Paul who has to pay the political price.

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