There’s one other way in which the narrative about Republicans and overspending, disputed by Ramesh Ponnuru, contains an element of truth. A version of it is even endorsed by Barack Obama: “In the year 2000, the government had a budget surplus. But instead of using it to pay off our debt, the money was spent on trillions of dollars in new tax cuts, while two wars and an expensive prescription drug program were simply added to our nation’s credit card.”
Now, most conservatives supported the tax cuts and the wars. Obama supported one of the two wars and a prescription drug benefit that was, if anything, more expensive than the one George W. Bush signed into law. He even stuck with the tax cuts and the Iraq war longer than expected. But overspending did undermine the Republican Party’s image of sound fiscal stewardship and undercut GOP arguments on a whole host of economic issues.
Add to that Katrina, the missing weapons of mass destruction, ethical problems, and wage stagnation and you begin to get the impression of a party that does not know what it is doing. This impression was building long before 2006 — it is harder to believe that the 2004 election would have been as close as it was without the Iraq albatross than it is to believe that Ohio hung on the exact form of Medicare Part D Bush delivered — and ended only because Obama’s Democrats did not govern any better.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis exhorted the American people to cast their ballot based on “competence, not ideology.” This was his way of leveraging the perception he was competent and asking voteres to ignore his unpopular ideology. The GOP’s woes this past decade have owed more to incompetence, real and perceived, than ideological impurity. But mixing incompetence with ideological incoherence didn’t help matters.
One final, tangenitally related thought: the conservative demand for purity is only partially due to the perception impurity costs Republicans at the polls; the demand stems also from the conservative belief that they don’t have very much to show for Republicans having held power. Ponnuru writes that purity cost the GOP two Senate seats, which could come back to haunt conservatives if Obamacare falls two votes short of repeal in 2013. But conventional Republicans, even fairly conservative ones, don’t have a very good track record of repealing things like Obamacare. Why expect such Republicans to work particularly hard for repeal at all? The Senate seat the GOP inarguably lost because primary voters picked a conservative in Delaware. I’m assuming that seat went unlisted because nobody would have counted on Mike Castle to vote for repeal, even though he, unlike Christine O’Donnell, surely could be counted on to beat Chris Coons.