Conservatives Are Angry Because They Have No Idea What They Want

Nebraska tea party rallyAPNebraska GOP Rally

In one of many pieces of psychoanalysis that have come out this week (because what other way is there to understand House Republicans?), Ross Douthat tries to explain
Why The Right Fights.

He says they hate the New Deal and the Great Society but are at a total loss for how to roll them back:

Conservative politicians take power imagining that this time, this time, they will finally tame the New Deal-Great Society Leviathan … and then they make proposals and advance ideas for doing so, the weight of public opinion tilts against them, and they end up either backpedalling, getting defeated at the polls, or both.

So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today, what’s driving their willingness to engage in probably-pointless brinksmanship, is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat. Rather, it’s a revolt against the long term pattern I’ve just described: Against what these conservatives, and many on the right, see as 40 years of failure, in which first Reagan and then Gingrich and now the Tea Party wave have all failed to deliver on the promise of an actual right-wing answer to the big left-wing victories of the 1930s and 1960s — and now, with Obamacare, of Obama’s first two years as well.

Conservatives are actually even more lost than Ross lets on here. They have an abstract idea that they regret the New Deal and the Great Society. But they don’t actually want to undo the big entitlement programs that those agendas gave us: Social Security, SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid.

They’re not boxed in by the electorate. They’re boxed in by their own acceptance of the New Deal consensus, and their simultaneous unwillingness to admit that there is such a consensus. They think the government is too way big but they’re not in favour of specific ways to make it much smaller. And when the resulting incoherence of their agenda becomes clear, they get angry, because they have no idea what the hell they are doing.

Take SNAP, commonly known as Food Stamps. Participation in this program is at an all-time high, with more than 1 in 7 Americans receiving benefits. Conservatives are outraged. They are attacking Barack Obama as the “food stamp president.” And their radical plan is to cut SNAP… by 5%.

The 5% SNAP cut is not some plan that was cooked up by milquetoast establishmentarians trying to nod toward conservative goals without rocking the boat in Washington. It’s the plan that was demanded by the true believers — by and large, the same House conservatives currently forcing the government shutdown over Obamacare — after they defeated leadership’s plan for a 2.5% cut.

Or look at Medicaid. Many Republican politicians are bitterly resisting the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare. But not a single state has chosen to withdraw from the traditional Medicaid program, even though that would produce real budget savings and put a major dent in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legacy. Even states with Republican legislative supermajorities and very conservative electorates stay in. I can only conclude that conservatives do not actually want to undo Medicaid.

Republicans will take big symbolic votes against the Great Society, as with Paul Ryan’s budgets that would deeply slash Medicaid funding and radically restructure Medicare. But when they have actual power to deeply cut existing entitlements, they decline. This is the opposite of what you do if you are afraid of the electorate; they have no fear of saying they want to deeply cut these programs, but they choose not to.

But if the conservative policy vision isn’t rolling back the Great Society, then what is it? Lately, what’s filled the vacuum is scorched-earth opposition to anything Barack Obama wants. Before that, the idea was to cut taxes and run up big deficits in an order to force conservatives to come up with some ideas about how to cut spending.

Before conservatives fix the problem that their ideas are unpopular with the public, they first have to figure out what their ideas should be. Otherwise, they’ll be left with the agenda that Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) laid out to the Washington Examiner yesterday: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

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