Worn-Out GOP Ideas
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- Who
is running out of ideas now?
It has been a cliche
of American politics for more than two decades that those poor,
tired liberals were bereft of big thoughts and wallowing in a
swamp of old commitments, old ideas and old promises. Their allies
in the Democratic Party were thought to be similarly geriatric.
a headline in the Outlook section of The Washington Post
confidently rendered this diagnosis on the liberals: ``Tired and
Defensive, They're Out of Ideas.'' In 1997, Charles Bray, who
was then president of the Johnson Foundation, argued that liberal
anemia had created the opening for a conservative jolt. ``The
entry of new ways of thinking into the American intellectual bloodstream
after two generations of liberals' monopolizing the public-policy
debate has been good for the country,'' Bray declared.
Let's accept -- for
the sake of argument, but also because the critique contained
some truth -- that at some point during the 1970s, liberalism
became tiresome, arrogant, unreflective and hidebound. Let's further
stipulate that this image gave conservatives their opening to
seem fresh, creative, exciting and all those other virtues that
marketers love to claim for their products.
It can be asserted
beyond a reasonable doubt that each of the disapproving words
about liberalism in the previous paragraph now applies to conservatism.
The most compelling evidence for this is the contorted, contentious
and incoherent struggle by Republicans in Congress to produce
The Republican leaders
may or may not pass their cut-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich
budget. It takes a degree of political incompetence usually associated
with Democrats for the side that wants to preserve the true spirit
of Christmas to invite so many coal-in-the-stocking metaphors
at this time of year.
But there is something more important about this failure. It marks
the dead end of a worn, haggard argument that conservatives have
been peddling for 30 years, ever since that energetic guru of
supply-side economics, Jude Wanniski, published his first articles
on the subject and his exciting 1978 manifesto, ``The Way the
that cutting taxes on the wealthy -- and especially on savings
and investment -- would help everyone, including the poor, by
promoting economic growth. Tax cuts would produce so much growth
that they would pay for themselves. Since government programs
were flawed, private investment was always more productive than
government spending. And deficits, if they did come, need not
worry us very much.
For many of us, this
whole argument was always a highfalutin rationalization for giving
the rich what they wanted, and often even more. Bill Clinton's
economic policies should have definitively destroyed supply-side
claims: Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, cut the deficit,
and what followed was an exceptional period of economic growth.
But it took until
this moment in 2005 for Republicans themselves to realize (even
if many won't acknowledge it yet) that the help-the-wealthy, damn-the-deficits
approach doesn't hold together, either as policy or politics.
They are learning that the public doesn't buy the idea that cutting
taxes on dividends and capital gains should take priority over
providing health coverage and child care for struggling Americans.
The tax cuts, it turns out, don't pay for themselves. The poor
have not fared well since the big supply-side tax cuts of 2001
And given how much
Republicans want to spend on defense, farm subsidies, homeland
security, roads, bridges, subsidies for energy companies, a flawed
drug program for seniors and lots of other stuff, there's no way
they can cut enough from programs for the poor to balance off
the costs of their tax giveaways.
As a result, the
Republican Party is fracturing right before our eyes. Moderate
Republicans know these cuts in programs for the poor are unsustainable.
Very conservative Republicans want to cut spending far more than
the rest of the party (or its voters) will allow. Republicans
leaders tilt this way and that, juggling this tax cut with that
spending cut. In the process, they alienate just about everybody.
The old faith is dying.
It took liberals
a long time -- too long -- to adjust to the popular sense all
those years ago that they were just trying to sell the same old
nostrums. I'd like to hope that today's graying of conservatism
will invite liberals to a new era of innovation. What's clear
is that if Republicans and conservatives keep trying to sell their
long-playing supply-side records in the Age of the iPod, they'll
confine their audience to antiquarians and ideological hobbyists.
It's the way the world works.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group