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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Do Conservatives Really Want? And Does It Really Matter?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 6, 2011.
At TNR today, Jonathan Chait asks an important and very basic question: in doing things like supporting radical cuts in federal transportation spending, are Republicans actually expressing their vision of what the federal government should or shouldn’t do?

Do they think we’re overinvested in infrastructure? That if we reduce government involvement, the private sector will step in? Or that the economic benefits of maintaining our physical infrastructure — or, more realistically, falling behind at a slower pace — are simply smaller than the economic benefits of keeping taxes low?

There is, I suspect, no one answer. Some conservatives have very radical ideas about legitimate areas of, or levels for, federal involvement in this or domestic function. Others don’t. But particularly when the president is a Democrat, and they don’t have genuine control of Congress, they feel no particular compunction to vote in a way that reflects any honest plan for the country. Domestic spending is too high, so votes to cut it, however nonsensical when it comes to an coherent view of federal responsibility, are always the right thing to do.
The same pattern is even more apparent on issues like health care. Do Republicans all share the view that health care isn’t enumerated as a federal responsibility in the Constitution and therefore any federal health care program is illegitimate? No, and the ones who do are unlikely to talk about it in public. Do all the others reject the idea that universal access to health care is a worthy and legitimate public goal? That’s harder to say, though it was certainly fashionable pretty recently for Republicans to claim they had plans to achieve something like universal coverage, even if the details made the claim highly questionable.
But what all Republicans can agree on is that Democratic efforts to achieve universal health coverage, even if they are based on plans embraced by Republicans in the not-too-distant past, are terrible and need to be repealed immediately. As noted in my previous post, Republicans seem to feel little if any responsibility to outline what they’d do the day after ObamaCare is discarded.
Finally, there’s the Big Bertha of domestic policy disputes, the demand by conservatives for radical changes to Medicare, Medicaid and (more muted, at the moment at least) Social Security. Again, some conservatives clearly think the whole New Deal/Great Society legacy was fundamentally misbegotten and unconstitutional. Others (viz. Mitch Daniels) won’t say that, but will say these programs are inappropriate and unaffordable going forward. And still others claim that initiatives to radically reduce “entitlement” benefits (via a Medicaid block grant, Medicare vouchers, or Social Security privatization) are the only way to “save” these programs. Still, conservatives are more than willing to come together in support of proposals like Paul Ryan’s budget that get them part of the way or all the way towards their ultimate objectives.
So the question remains: does it really matter what conservatives really want in the way of ideal policies? Yes and no. Where conservatives are, as in the case of politicians like Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint, among others, demonstrably in the grip of radical ideologies that are designed to produce a country characterized by theocracy, contempt for people in need, unfettered corporate power, and rampant militarism, then of course, progressives should make that clear. And where conservatives are demonstrably dishonest about their intentions, as with many “right-to-life” activists who weep crocodile tears for the “victims” of late-term abortions in the service of an agenda aimed at a total repeal of reproductive rights, including the use of many forms of contraception–progressives should expose the charade early and often. It’s also important to reveal what’s happening when Republican pols, whether or not they believe much of anything at all, choose to embrace the policies (or accept the litmus tests) of radicals strictly in order to achieve political power.
Beyond that, it’s probably a waste of time to worry too much about what conservatives actually want. It’s better to focus on showing what their polices would actually produce in real-world consequences. That’s bad enough.

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