WASHINGTON — The wishful thinking on the left continues apace. The latest exhibit is Jonathan Chait’s piece in the Los Angeles Times showing how the GOP realignment will fall apart within years.
One reason the Democrats’ New Deal Coalition fell apart, Chait argues, is “it contained both those Americans most adamantly in favor of segregation (Southern conservatives) and those most adamantly opposed (liberals and blacks). The civil rights movement split that fissure wide open.” Thus, for Chait, Exhibit A that the GOP will face the same fate is “Republicans have social fissures of their own. A huge part of the GOP base (the religious right) votes Republican in the hope of enacting a radical social agenda that another part of the GOP base (suburbanites and the business elite) has no intent or desire to carry out.”
There are three problems with that argument. First, the civil rights agenda is not like the conservative social agenda. Civil rights is largely a “binary” issue — that is, you are either for equality for blacks or you are against it. It is intellectually dishonest, not to mention morally indefensible, to argue in favor of say equal voting rights but not equal employment rights. An issue like abortion exists on more of a continuum. There are a host of positions one can reasonably take between being completely pro-choice or completely pro-life. For example, I take the position that abortion in the early months of pregnancy should be legal, but illegal later in pregnancy (as to why, that is a subject for another column). Republicans do not have to take an all-or-nothing approach on abortion as Democrats had to on civil rights in the 1960s. They can work to ban partial-birth abortion or pass parental consent laws, both of which are popular with suburbanites and professionals as well as social conservatives. And thanks to judicial activists championed by liberals like Chait, the courts will ensure that these are issues for years to come.
Second, social issues are far more varied than civil rights issues, giving the GOP a smorgasbord it can use to keep its coalition together. The ACLU’s assault on religion in the public square and the Boy Scouts, keeping “under God” in the pledge, gay marriage, and smut on TV are issues that the GOP can use to animate social conservatives and won’t alienate (and might even attract) suburbanites and the business elite.
The other coming disaster for Republicans, according to Chait, is found in fiscal policy:
Politically, it’s working great so far. It may well continue to work great for the next four years. But the government can’t run large structural deficits forever…
On privatizing Social Security, the Republicans have floated the prospect of paying for that not with cuts in benefits or tax hikes but with enormous new borrowing. We would enjoy the benefit — spiffy new accounts — today. The bill comes later.
The upshot of both these developments is that a second Bush term means more of the same. Even with full control of the federal government and a president freed of the constraints of reelection, Republicans lack the political will to raise middle-class taxes or cut large spending programs.
Which means that eventually one or all of the following will happen: The budget deficit will drag the economy down; Republicans will have to inflict significant fiscal pain on major elements of their coalition; voters will elect Democrats to tame the deficit.
There is so much wrong with that analysis it is difficult to know where to begin. First, the current deficit isn’t that large. It is barely 3.5% of Gross Domestic Product — it was 3.9% Clinton’s first year in office and he eventually turned it into a surplus. Clinton balanced the budget without making major cuts in spending programs, and why the GOP would have to make such cuts isn’t clear. Indeed, if Congress can hold down spending for the next couple of years and economic growth is strong, we can outgrow the deficit. Congress seems willing to do that as growth in discretionary spending is held to 2% in the Fiscal Year 2005 budget. Chait also overlooks the possibility that we may withdraw the troops from Iraq in the next few years, which would trim another $80 to $90 billion from the deficit.
Surely Social Security reform could add more to the deficit, but it won’t add that much if the non-Social Security portion of the deficit is disappearing. (This assumes that there will be no compromise involving some benefit cuts or tax increase and that Social Security reform will be entirely debt financed.) Chait’s analysis also overlooks the fact that Social Security reform, unlike the current Social Security system, would have a wealth-creating effect. A system of personal investment accounts means more money is available for business investment and job creation. As such wealth grows, so do the tax receipts going into the government, thereby reducing any deficit.
Neither social issues nor fiscal policy are likely to split the Republican coalition anytime soon. Indeed, Chait hints that he knows that his argument is rather weak: “it’s also possible that Republicans will suffer a Vietnam-style external shock of their own — a severe recession or a bungled war.” Hoping for a major calamity is not the comment of someone who is overly optimistic that GOP dominance won’t last decades.
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