Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Conservatives Are Still Awful (Feb. 2023 Edition)

The state of the union and its responses earlier this month were revealing for both rhetoric and policy. President Joe Biden started his state of the union speech on a collegial tone, saying nice things to the conservative Republicans in Congress. He did draw distinctions between their policies, and Republicans booed and yelled at him at times, but that said more about them than Biden. He repeatedly spoke about working together, and in at least one poll, 72 percent of viewers had a positive reaction to the speech.

In sharp contrast, in the official Republican response, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly shifted to a right-wing, hyperbolic, cultural war speech designed to rile up Fox News viewers and the conservative base, not to persuade anyone else. A few sentences in, she claimed that "Democrats want to rule us with more government control," and the core of her speech consisted of even more straw men and bullshit:

[Biden's] the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can't even tell you what a woman is. In the radical left's America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country. Whether Joe Biden believes this madness or is simply too weak to resist it, his administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left. The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy. 

She was correct about the last part, but not in the way she meant. The rest of her speech featured plenty of other charged and ridiculous rhetoric:

Upon taking office just a few weeks ago I signed Executive Orders to ban CRT, racism, and indoctrination in our schools, eliminate the use of the derogatory term 'Latinx' in our government, repealed COVID orders and said never again to authoritarian mandates and shutdowns. . . .

After years of Democrat attacks on law enforcement and calls to defund the police, violent criminals roam free, while law-abiding families live in fear. . . .

We are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn't start and never wanted to fight. Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is, your freedom of speech.

Perhaps her most outrageous moment was invoking the Little Rock Nine, the black students who faced harassment in 1957 for attending the previously segregated, whites-only Little Rock Central High School. On PBS the night of the speeches, Jonathan Capehart reacted strongly to the hypocrisy and gall of Huckabee Sanders:

This speech, I'm, I'm, trying not to levitate from my chair, because there were so many, she leaned so hard into the culture wars that she just slid right into ignorance. And for her to say, to revel in the fact that an alum of Little Rock Central High School, and lauding the Little Rock Nine, and their stature, they're memorialized – when the Republicans, particularly in Florida, but I guess now in Arkansas, are going to make it illegal for students to learn about why the Little Rock Nine are significant and in bronze, in Little Rock. This speech was entirely offensive.

Another poll reported that viewers found Huckabee Sanders' speech more extreme and divisive than Biden's. It's hard to imagine that many people outside the conservative base found her compelling.

The most striking moment for policy – and issues of accuracy – in the state of the union was Biden saying, "Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans – some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I'm not saying it's a majority…" He was shouted down by Republicans, most notably Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who yelled "Liar!" But of course, Biden was telling the truth. As political historian Heather Cox described the scene the next day:

Biden did something astonishing. He tricked the Republicans into a public declaration of support for protecting Social Security and Medicare. He noted that a number of Republicans have called for cutting, or even getting rid of, Social Security and Medicare. This is simply a fact—it is in Senator Rick Scott's (R-FL) pre-election plan; the Republican Study Committee's budget; statements by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Ron Johnson (R-WI); and so on—but Republicans booed Biden and called him a liar for suggesting they would make those cuts, and they did so in public.

Seeming to enjoy himself, Biden jumped on their assertion, forcing them to agree that there would be no cuts to Social Security or Medicare. It was budget negotiation in real time, and it left Biden holding all the cards.

The Hill provided a nice roundup of specific statement from conservative Republicans in support of cutting Social Security and Medicare, and Chris Hayes and Seth Meyers presented good video segments. (The most striking may be Senator Mike Lee of Utah saying, "It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.")

Wanting to gut the social safety net, and Social Security and Medicare in particular, are nothing new for conservatives and Republicans. Sticking just to this century, in 2005, George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security, but failed because his plan was wildly unpopular, not to mention awful policy that would have shifted the program from a social guarantee to gambling on the market.

Former Speaker of the House, Republican Paul Ryan, proposing cutting both programs for years. In 2012, Ryan became Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, and Romney adopted Ryan's polices for his campaign. The "Stealthy Extremist" section of a 2012 post, "The Four Types of Conservatives," provides a bevy of links and passages analyzing Paul Ryan's policies attacking the social safety net. Read it for far more detail, but the key point may be Paul Krugman's: the objections to Ryan's plans weren't solely that they were cruel; Ryan's plans were "disingenuous and fraudulent." Not only were his goals immoral, Ryan constantly lied about the numbers. Of course, that's a feature, not a bug, of many conservative policies. They're awful on the merits, and don't fare well when discussed honestly and accurately.

On the PBS News Hour this month, conservative Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), spoke about the federal budget and cutting "entitlements," meaning Social Security and Medicare, and insisted that cutting military spending was not the answer. Cole managed to sound more reasonable than many of his fellow conservatives to casual viewers, even agreeing to a question about raising taxes that "revenue would have to be on the table." Cole omitted plenty, though, and it's one thing to pretend to be a reasonable conservative to the PBS and NPR crowds and another thing to act accordingly. In 2017, Cole voted for the Trump tax cuts, which were a budget-busting, funneling of more money to the wealthy. And the best way to lower the costs of Medicare and Medicaid would be to join the civilized nations of the world and pass universal health care. Cole was practicing the classic conservative starve the beast strategy – run up the debt with tax cuts for the rich and military spending, and then claim the debt requires gutting the social safety net.

It's worth pointing out that the problem is not solely Republicans, but conservatives, a group that includes many political figures the mainstream press calls "centrists" and "moderates." In 2010, Barack Obama asked Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles to head up a commission to look at fiscal reform. The commission never managed to agree on official recommendations, but that didn't stop Simpson in particular from publicly advocating for particular policies, most notably cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting the social safety net. This is the same crap peddled since at least the Reagan era, whether it's called supply-side economics, voodoo economics, trickle-down economics, or just conservative economics. Strangely enough, for Simpson and many other "very sensible centrists," giving more money to the rich and powerful is never a problem – plutocracy and oligarchy are just fine – but social programs that will help the vast majority of Americans are somehow clearly unsustainable. (Digby wrote quite a bit about the Simpson and Bowles gambits at the time, and has since written about their successors.)

On February 18th, Heather Cox Richardson followed up her initial take on the state of the union with a great summary of conservative and Republican policies – their paucity, their unpopularity, and their history. Here's a lengthy quotation, but you should be reading Richardson regularly anyway and it's an excellent primer:

Republican leaders are recognizing that the sight of Republican lawmakers heckling the president of the United States didn't do their party any favors.

It not only called attention to their behavior, it prompted many news outlets to fact-check President Biden's claim that Republicans had called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare or even called to get rid of them. Those outlets noted that while Republicans have repeatedly said they have no intention of cutting those programs, what Biden said was true: Republican leaders have repeatedly suggested such cuts, or even the elimination of those programs, in speeches, news interviews, and written proposals.

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) told Alexander Bolton of The Hill that Republicans should stick to "reasonable and enduring policy" proposals. "I think we're missing an opportunity to differentiate," he said. "Focus on policy. If you get that done, it will age well."

But therein lies the Republican Party's problem. What ARE its reasonable and enduring policies? One of the reasons Biden keeps pressuring the party to release its budget is that it's not at all clear what the party stands for.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to issue any plans before the 2022 midterm election, and in 2020, for the first time in its history, the party refused to write a party platform. The Republican National Committee simply resolved that if its party platform committee had met, it "would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party's strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration." So, it resolved that "the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda."

Cutting Social Security is a centerpiece of the ideology the party adopted in the 1980s: that the government in place since 1933 was stunting the economy and should be privatized as much as possible.

In place of using the federal government to regulate business, provide a basic social safety net, protect civil rights, and promote infrastructure, Reagan Republicans promised that cutting taxes and regulation would free up capital, which investors would then plow into new businesses, creating new jobs and moving everybody upward. Americans could have low taxes and services both, they promised, for "supply-side economics" would create such economic growth that lower tax rates would still produce high enough revenues to keep the debt low and maintain services.

But constructing an economy that favored the "supply side" rather than the "demand side"—those ordinary Americans who would spend more money in their daily lives—did not, in fact, produce great economic growth or produce tax revenues high enough to keep paying expenses. In January 1981, President Ronald Reagan called the federal deficit, then almost $74 billion, "out of control." Within two years, he had increased it to $208 billion. The debt, too, nearly tripled during Reagan's term, from $930 billion to $2.6 trillion. The Republican solution was to cut taxes and slash the government even further.

As early as his 1978 congressional race, George W. Bush called for fixing Social Security's finances by permitting people to invest their payroll tax themselves. In his second term as president in 2005, he called for it again. When Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida proposed an 11-point (which he later changed to a 12 points) "Plan to Rescue America" last year, vowing to "sunset" all laws automatically after five years, the idea reflected that Republican vision. It permitted the cutting of Social Security without attaching those cuts to any one person or party.

But American voters like Social Security and Medicare and, just as they refused Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security, recoiled from Scott's plan. Yesterday, under pressure from voters and from other Republicans who recognized the political damage being done, Scott wrote an op-ed saying his plan was "obviously not intended to include entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security—programs that hard-working people have paid into their entire lives—or the funds dedicated to our national security." (The online version of the plan remains unchanged as of Saturday morning.)

Scott attacked Biden for suggesting otherwise, but he also attacked Mitch McConnell, who also condemned Scott's plan, accusing them of engaging in "shallow gotcha politics, which is what Washington does." He also accused "Washington politicians" for "lying to you every chance they get." Scott's venom illustrated the growing rift in the Republican Party.

Since the 1990s, Republicans have had an ideological problem: voters don't actually like their economic vision, which has cut services and neglected infrastructure even as it has dramatically moved wealth upward. So to keep voters behind them, Republicans hammered on social and cultural issues, portraying those who liked the active government as godless socialists who were catering to minorities and women. "There is a religious war going on in this country," Republican Pat Buchanan told the Republican National Convention in 1992. "It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America."

A generation later, that culture war has joined with the economic vision of the older party to create a new ideology. More than half of Republicans now reject the idea of a democracy based in the rule of law and instead support Christian nationalism, insisting that the United States is a Christian nation and that our society and our laws should be based in evangelical Christian values. Forty percent of the strongest adherents of Christian nationalism think "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country," while 22% of sympathizers agree with that position.

Scott released his 11-point plan because, he said, "Americans deserve to know what we will do when given the chance," and his plan reflected the new Republicans. Sunsetting laws and tax cuts were only part of the plan. He promised to cut government jobs by 25% over the next five years, "sell off all non-essential government assets, buildings and land, and use the proceeds to pay down our national debt," get rid of all federal programs that local governments can take over, cut taxes, "grow America's economy," and "stop Socialism."

But it also reflected the turn toward Christian nationalism, centering Christianity and "Judeo-Christian values" by investing in religious schools, adoption agencies, and social services and calling for an end to abortion, gender-affirming care, and diversity training. It explicitly puts religion above the law, saying "Americans will not be required to go against their core values and beliefs in order to conform to culture or government."

The document warned that "[a]n infestation of old, corrupt Washington insiders and immature radical socialists is tearing America apart. Their bizarre policies are intentionally destroying our values, our culture, and the beliefs that hold us together as a nation." "Is this the beginning of the end of America?" it asks. "Only if we allow it to be."

That new worldview overlaps with the extremist wing that is trying to take over the Republican Party. It was at the heart of the far-right challenge to House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). It informs Florida governor Ron DeSantis's abandonment of small-government Republicanism in favor of using the power of the state government to enforce a "Christian" vision, including on businesses.

Conservative economic policies don't need to overlap with authoritarianism and (in America and some other countries) Christian nationalism, but they do so quite easily, and Richardson is wise not to look at efforts to gut the social safety net in isolation. Put another way, to quote a post from last December, "U.S. conservatism focuses on fighting for power and privilege; it believes in bullying to defeat merit, and sometimes democracy itself. It is almost always plutocratic, often bigoted, and sometimes authoritarian (which intertwines quite naturally and toxically with the first two)." (The same post looked at how many conservatives and Republicans supported the January 6th, 2021, insurrection and support similar efforts in the future.)

As has been the case for decades, all that U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party can seem to offer the American people are spite, fear, lies, and awful policies that hurt the middle class and the poor. But the unequal, unfair, oppressive power structure they're fighting for is even more dangerous than their policies themselves.