The Runback: A No Legged Stool

The National GOP Continues to Lack a Guiding Principle

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Podcast Episode #31

This week we talk with Dirk Haire, the Chairman of the Maryland Republican Party

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News and Politics


Shameless Plugs

The Monday Thought

This week Rich Lowry wrote a piece for Politico that says something that has become very visible over the course of the fast five years; Republicans just don’t care about spending and deficits anymore.

Once upon a time, Joe Biden’s spending proposals would have launched mass demonstrations in opposition.

Little else would have been talked about in conservative media, and ambitious Republican politicians would have competed with one another to demonstrate the most intense, comprehensive resistance, up to and perhaps including chaining themselves to the U.S. Treasury building in protest.

The conventional wisdom was that after the free-spending Trump years, Republicans would snap back to being deficit hawks when out of power. There’s been some of that, but the relatively muted reaction to Biden’s almost incomprehensible spending ambitions is testament to the fact that, no, Republicans simply aren’t as interested in fiscal issues anymore.

Lowry, of course, places the blame squarely where it belongs: on Donald Trump

Beginning in the 2016 primaries, he demonstrated in vivid fashion that as the GOP coalition had become older and more working class, it didn’t care as much about spending restraint or entitlement reform as the party’s leaders had presumed.

Once in office, Trump taught Republicans how to relax and love expansionary fiscal policy. By 2019, he was running a nearly $1 trillion deficit at a time of peace and prosperity, and of course, the pandemic blew the lid off in 2020.

The historic spending bills last year, passed with bipartisan majorities, underlined the GOP’s newly lax attitude toward spending (although Republicans still, overall, wanted to spend less than Democrats).

It’s difficult for the party to come back after being on board all that, and then immediately turn around and sound the klaxons again about the dangers of red ink.

Lowry is right though. Ten or so years ago, the entirety of the Republican base was predicated upon the Tea Party phenomenon, that Americans were taxed enough, that government spends too much, and both issues need to be under control? Today? The base doesn’t care about any of that. The base isn’t all that different from the Democratic base. Both want government to pay for what they want; they just sometimes want different stuff.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that so many Republicans, particularly at the national level, are not policy makers but trolls serving as the avatar for their constituency. It’s something I addressed in The Judas Effect two weeks ago. But too many people who know better are going along with the charade for whatever real of perceived reason that they find necessary.

Andy Smarick (the very first guest on the very first episode of The Duckpin Podcast) talked about this in a piece for the Dallas Morning News about how the GOP lost its mojo:

Those concerned about a bloated, voracious Uncle Sam, especially those of us on the political right, should look at this with frustration. But also regret. Despite entering office with larger congressional majorities and presiding over a pre-COVID economy with respectable growth and low unemployment, President Donald Trump and Republicans were able to accomplish vanishingly little legislatively. Instead of a bold, coordinated agenda of decentralizing power, catalyzing civil-society activity and addressing national challenges related to immigration, trade and education, we ended up with an aborted effort to replace Obamacare and a waiting-for-Godot infrastructure week.

Part of the story is that, over the last generation, the political right lost its policy mojo, generating too few new ideas. Regardless of the question, they relied on the old standbys — tax cuts and deregulation — as their answers. So when it came time to actually be in charge, the GOP’s policy cupboards were mostly bare apart from these stale staples.

But a bigger issue is that too much of the right has lost the skills and dispositions necessary for governing leadership. It’s one thing to be a backseat driver, issuing fiery press releases criticizing others and reciting fierce talking points on cable-news programs. It’s another thing entirely to know what to do when you are handed the keys.

In truth, it is easier and more fun to be a political gadfly than to be responsible for generating legislation, managing budgets, assembling coalitions and negotiating compromises. The stuff of real-life governing can be thankless, grueling work. You often need to keep a low profile, sweat the details and allow others to get attention. You don’t always get what you want. Critics will attack you for going soft. But, alas, we can’t have only show horses. We need workhorses.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Smarick is right about the fact that conservatism did lose a step when it came to what the bold policy ideas are, though I disagree with the assessment that the “old standbys” are a bad thing. The problem Republicans had in leadership, particularly within the Legislative Branch, is that nobody can adequately articulate the how to make things like tax cuts and deregulation a priority. It’s basically a real life version of when Jed Bartlett spiked the football on Rob Ritchie on The West Wing in talking about the ten word answers.

This brings us to the three-legged stool theory of conservatism. Successful conservatism stands for three things: national security, free-market economics, and social values. How can anybody actually look at the last five years and say that there are any significant policy accomplishments that advance objectives of this stool? No, arguably you could look at the last five years and say that there have been no successful policies even advocated by Republicans that help to achieve these goals?

Trump’s weakening of our national security posture, abandonment of allies and embrace of enemies sure did not advance or security.

Consistent government handouts and economic stimulus advanced by Trump, to say nothing of Trump’s exploding deficit, advanced the free-market.

And it’s hard to advance the cause of values when Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, and Jim Jordan are revered.

But let’s be fair here: the GOP was on the glide path away from the stool before Trump came along. He was merely the benefactor of this abandonment of principle. And that’s how you wind up with a party so mentally bankrupt of ideas that you wind up with a platform of whatever the strongman says.

There are still plenty of three-legged stool Republicans out there. Many of them are elected to state and local offices and actively advancing these causes to the best of their ability. Some of them are even members of Congress, though many of those Republicans are too spineless to stand up for themselves, their values, their party, and their country. But too many of them are too timid to do the right thing, which allows the National GOP writ large to continue operating without any guiding principle at all. The stool has gone from three legs to being a legless cushion on the floor, ready to be stepped on by whoever walks by.

The only way out of this hole is for people of principle to run for office in Republican primaries again. The Republican Party will not change without people of principles working for it, one of the many reasons I decided to stay five years ago.

But national Republicans are running out of chances to get this right.