President Obama said yesterday, “The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.” This is indeed the interesting question: Is politics motivating the Republicans, or ideology? I realize that Obama meant to ask whether the government would be shut down. But humor me while I interpret the sentence the other way: Politics versus ideology.
Most of what the Grand Old Party has done in the last two years can much better be explained by politics than ideology. For example, only politics can explain a systematic strategy of opposing whatever the White House favors, even when this requires changing one’s vote — for example on the fiscal commission bill that Senators like John McCain had previously been sponsors of. Only politics can explain the long-time refusal of so-called fiscal conservatives to name the specific spending programs they want to cut.
I never cease to be frustrated that the current public policy debate is described as a contest of ideas: fiscal conservatives versus liberals. It is not just Republicans or Tea Partiers who believe that they are fiscal conservatives, no doubt sincerely. Democrats and liberals seem to accept this characterization at face value, as does most of the media.
The problem is that a heavy majority of the supposed fiscally conservative congressmen, although passionate about cutting government spending in the abstract, are in truth no better able to find specific dollars of budget cuts that they can support or defend to their constituents than are the Democrats. Factoring in their immutable desire to cut taxes, I believe that if the Republicans were in full control, we would have larger budget deficits in the coming years than if the Obama crowd retained power. This is what happened in a big way when Presidents Reagan and GW Bush took office promising to cut the debt while also cutting taxes. Spending, deficits, and debt soared during their terms, relative to their respective Democratic predecessors. There is no reason to think anything has changed.