Within days of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, Sen. Marco Rubio performed a preliminary autopsy on the Republican Party’s 2020 presidential campaign. He concluded that just about everyone failed to properly apply the principles of Trumpism.
“The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition,” Rubio said. Insofar as he could define what a “working-class party” would look like, he said that it would be one that cared about urban crime, put less stock in the importance of “cheap labor,” and catered to voters who were “very suspicious, quite frankly, dismissive of elites at every level.”
Threading this needle isn’t too terribly tricky when Republicans are confronted with the diktats of imperious bureaucrats who want to mothball your gas range or force you to shell out for all-electric lawn-care equipment. But it was always harder to see how a working-class GOP would navigate the labyrinthine contours of thornier political debates such as those surrounding America’s fiscal health. How do the GOP’s suspicions play out when the “elites” we’re talking about are, for example, the boards of trustees for Medicare and Social Security? What happens to the GOP’s hostility toward the American aristocracy when they’re beaten at their own game?
Republicans are confronted with this conundrum today. Led by some of the most reliably populist members, Republicans in the House majority are attempting to exact concessions from Democrats on spending ahead of a regular hike to the national “debt ceiling.” But in this debate, it’s the Democratic Party and its allies that most effectively channel the public’s paranoia.
There is no room to maneuver to the left of the left when chanting the mantra “not true!” suffices as an argument against the evidence of America’s unsustainable fiscal trajectory. The elementary logic of negative partisanship—if they’re for it, were’ against it—would exert centrifugal pressure on the Republicans who had strayed too far into the left’s budgetary camp. And it has, but not without some confused (and confusing) efforts by the GOP’s practitioners of populism to rationalize their about-face.
Axios reporter Josh Kraushaar recently zoomed in on the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which is struggling to find a durable source of identity in the post-Trump era. The organization is attempting to reconcile its desire to serve as “a potential anti-Trump bulwark” while preserving goodwill among the party’s anti-establishmentarians. The group’s campaign against one of the GOP’s most effective cost-cutters, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, illustrates why their effort may be terminally flawed.
“After 50 years in big government, big pharma, and big academia, Mitch Daniels forgot how to fight,” says the narrator in a Club-sponsored ad designed to keep Daniels out of the race for an open U.S. Senate seat in Indiana, where he currently serves as the president of Purdue University. This is, of course, nonsense.
As observers on the right have ably chronicled, Daniels’s record in the governor’s mansion and as the head of a major university has been one of effective cost-cutting and tax relief and prosecuting successfully the right’s case on hot-button cultural issues. The Club’s ad attacks Daniels for helping launch “one of the largest entitlement programs in a generation,” by which they mean Medicare’s George W. Bush-era “Part D” expansion. But given this program’s relative fiscal sustainability, its popularity, and the populist right’s dedication to preserving and even expanding the social safety net, this should be an asset for Daniels.
The ad’s incoherence is understandable insofar as it is aimed at a type of Republican voter who has retroactively conditioned himself into believing that Daniels’s 2010 call for a “truce” on social issues amid the right’s push for a grand bargain with Democrats on spending amounted to capitulation in the culture wars. Daniels’s remark was a non-starter even then, and it remains one now. But what are Republicans in Congress doing if seeking negotiated budgetary concessions from Democrats? And why are Republicans trying to limit Democrats’ ability to introduce unrelated social issues into that debate, which has derailed budgetary negotiations in the recent past?
If you’re befuddled, don’t worry about it. So are they.
“Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” former President Donald Trump insisted in a video message to congressional Republicans. “Cut waste, fraud, and abuse everywhere,” he added. But “save Social Security, don’t destroy it.” The message was boosted by Trump acolyte and freshman Sen. J.D. Vance, but it generated little traction among lawmakers otherwise. Maybe that muted response is attributable to the shame that responsible legislators would feel lending credence to the utterly baseless notion that America can forge a path back to fiscal sustainability by doing only that which is universally popular. Maybe. But more likely, the reliable physics of negative partisanship is at play.
We don’t merely need to look to the GOP to see that there are political rewards available to the party that captures the mantle of fiscal responsibility. We can look to Joe Biden. He has, albeit risibly, repeatedly marketed his big spending plans—from his proposed budget, to “Build Back Better,” to the so-called “inflation reduction act”—as efforts to reimpose fiscal discipline on the nation. Laughable as Biden’s effort may be, there’s political horse sense in it. America doesn’t need two political parties equally and heedlessly devoted to fiscal profligacy. Frugality is still a virtue, and a race is on to lay claim to it.
And make no mistake: It is a race. According to Medicare’s trustees, deficits for the program’s hospital insurance fund will exceed expenses this year, and the program will become insolvent in 2028. And Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance funds will run out of reserves in 2034. The black hole toward which the nation is hurtling will only loom larger as we approach the event horizon of a debt crisis. A Republican Party that seeks to sidestep what will become an all-consuming debate by the decade’s end would cede the issue of a generation to the Democratic Party.
That’s not fighting. It’s surrendering. In a political culture that encourages contrasts on issues large and small, this is not a sustainable path for the GOP. And for the first time in a long time, a critical mass of Republican politicians seem to agree.