I find myself in an odd position, politically, these days. I’m a liberal Democrat, which means my ward/neighborhood tends to regard me, with a bemused chuckle, as our resident amiable eccentric. But Donald Trump’s ascendancy has alarmed the natives–Utah is not Trump territory, and the thought of him becoming the Republican candidate for President is regarded with horror by nearly all my church friends and neighbors. Trumpism has led, both here and nationally, to a certain amount of Republican soul-searching and navel-gazing: with anguished cries of ‘how could things have gone so terribly wrong?’ How indeed.
I’m a big fan of the Deseret News, the more right-wing of the two Salt Lake City newspapers. Its editorial page is such a splendid guide to Utah conservatism. And today, the paper published this letter to the editor:
I believe the Republican party has reaped the result of ignoring their base for too long and this is the reason we are angry. I was blown away after the last two elections, when Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, passed the huge deficit-laden budget two months ago. All we conservatives want is for the federal government to live up to Constitutional Principles, including limited government, balanced budgets, secure borders, lower taxes (particularly corporate type, which are the highest in the world), eliminate our national debt, obey the rule of law and to get the federal government out of the healthcare and welfare business, which is a personal and state responsibility. At this late date, Mitt Romney and other leading Republicans will not be able to reverse the damage that has been done to their base. They deserve what is happening.
All right: the big sin of the loathed ‘Republican establishment’ was to compromise with President Obama in negotiating and passing a budget. Beyond that, I think this letter does a dandy job of listing the policy positions of Tea Party conservatives. Let’s take a look.
‘Constitutional Principles, Limited government.’ These are conservative First Principles, and everything else flows therefrom. Government should stop doing lots of things it’s currently doing; the federal government should get smaller. That’s where we start.
‘Balanced budgets.’ The federal government should live within its means. Got it. It would be snarky of me to point out that the two most conservative Presidents of my lifetime, Reagan and Bush 43, both vastly increased the deficit. Still, I’m generally sympathetic to the argument that Congress should not vote to spend money without specifying where it’s going to come from. Generally, spending=taxes. But that’s Republican heresy.
‘Secure borders.’ We disagree here; I’m pro-immigration and don’t see the distinction between ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ immigration as particularly significant. If we have people coming across the border looking for work, the obvious solution is to issue more green cards. But, okay, let’s assume that ‘securing borders’ is important. That means hiring more border guards, building stronger barriers, hiring more customs’ officials. It’s an expensive proposition. How specifically should it be paid for?
‘Lower taxes, eliminate deficits, pay off the national debt.’ Well, if you lower taxes, you lower tax revenues. The government collects less money, and therefore has less money to spend on fences and border guards. We’ll get back to this point later.
‘Obey rule of law.’ Fine. So that means hiring police, building courts and prisons and jails, supporting an entire legal system. I’m not opposed; I do think that’s something else you’re going to have to pay for.
‘Get the federal government out of the health care and welfare business.’ So you want to eliminate Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration? Good luck with that. I think you may find getting rid of Medicare a little tricky politically. Older folks like it, and older folks vote.
But that’s only the start. You also want to eliminate the Indian Health Service, the Center for Disease Control, the FDA, the Agency for Healthcare Research, The Agency for Cancer Research and fifty other agencies tasked with supporting research into a whole variety of diseases. OSHA and CHIP? The entire Department of Health and Human Services? Those programs are all really popular. You want to get rid of the CDC? Seriously?
And that’s only the health care part of the equation. This letter also wants to eliminate all federal welfare. For starters, that means getting rid of Social Security. That’ll be a fun political fight; it’s the most popular federal program of all time, basically. Still, you’re committed, as a matter of principle, to eliminating welfare. That means Social Security.
But that’s not all. Getting rid of welfare means getting rid of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is maybe the most successful anti-poverty program now running. It means getting rid of food stamps, which feed 45 million Americans, including a lot of military families. There are special programs for blind and disabled Americans, a big variety of housing assistance programs, Pell Grants, Head Start, Child Nutrition programs, Job training programs. I’m a big fan of TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which moves families from welfare to jobs. How about WIC? I’m not sure if it fits under welfare or health care, but it’s a program providing healthy food for pregnant women in poverty and their small children. How about LIHEAP? The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Because for poor families to freeze to death on cold days strikes me as unAmerican.
Now, this letter writer insists that welfare is a private responsibility. And in fact, Americans spend 1.6 trillion dollars of their own money on private social welfare expenditures. We do a lot. It’s not terribly realistic to expect us to do more.
More to the point, if we Americans hard-heartedly cut all welfare spending (including Social Security and Medicare), yes, that would enable us to balance our budgets; sure. Unless we cut taxes by too much. And all of the Republican Presidential candidates, without exception, are running on platforms that include massive tax cuts. The two worst are the two front-runners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The trillion dollar tax cuts those two propose would leave us with massive budget deficits even if we eliminated Social Security and Medicare.
But don’t tax cuts stimulate the economy enough to pay for themselves? No. It just doesn’t happen. A small, carefully focused tax cut can have some small stimulative power if the biggest problem in the economy is a lack of investment capital. That’s absolutely not the situation we find ourselves in now.
When Donald Trump talks about how he can balance the budget by eliminating wasteful spending, that’s a sound bite that sounds terrific, and also really familiar, because it’s what Republican office seekers have been saying for years. It also isn’t true. To make government small enough to simultaneously cut taxes AND eliminate the deficit/pay down the debt would require cutting a whole lot of very popular government programs. It’s politically impossible, and rightfully so; caring for the health and welfare of its citizens is a legitimate function of government, and also, entirely constitutional. But this kind of grumpy-old-man ‘kick all them lazy bums off welfare’ tirade does not add up to sensible or feasible policies.
And that’s the problem. Because the contents of this letter could have been lifted straight from every speech by every Republican seeker of national office over the last forty years. People have been systematically lied to. They’ve been promised impossibilities. And they’ve gotten ticked off when the politicians they elect can’t deliver miracles. Which, of course, they can’t.
Conservative ideology is built on a foundation of falsehood, a foundation that says that ‘government can do all the things we want it to do, but remain small and cheap.’ (To some extent, liberal ideology is similarly dishonest: ‘the government can fix everything, and cheaply too!) And so the electorate is saying ‘you didn’t deliver!’ And, now, has turned to one of two buffoons, Trump and Cruz, who won’t be able to deliver either, but who sound outrageous enough that it’s harder to tell that they’re also lying. Conservatives have sowed; now it’s time to reap. And this preposterous election season is the harvest.