My pal Ben Domenech takes up valuable space in his must-read daily newsletter, The Transom, to thoughtfully respond my essay yesterday on reform conservatism and the current GOP policy agenda, such as it is.
A recap of my basic case: Current Republican policy proposals — such as the flat tax (or slashing top rates to pre-Great Depression levels), a balanced budget amendment, single-mandate Fed reform – are either off-point with actual policy problems or economic/fiscal reality or with voters concerns — and in many cases all three.
And here is the core of Ben’s counter:
Within a campaign, you want to take plans to the people which are as simple as possible, easy for the politician and the people to understand, and built on ideas which are already fairly popular. .. The odd part about this is that if you step back from these various ideas, they tend to meet the test of simplicity, ease of understanding, and reasonable levels of popularity. Massive tax reform (which is what the flat tax represented), a balanced budget, and less debt are all concepts which remain consistently popular across the parties (a good deal more popular than Ben Bernanke or the Fed, or trade deals, or Medicare competitive bidding, or a host of other things I assume Pethokoukis wants Republicans to keep on espousing). …
If Pethokoukis really believes the aim of balancing the budget is a negative with voters, he needs to make the case in the political context. If you’re talking about making the case for entitlement reform politically, not in the policy context, the rules are different. Because if we don’t care about balancing the budget, why even care about reforming Social Security? With Medicare you can at least say it’s “good governance” to fix entitlements which don’t work, which transforms you into merely a conservative technocrat, but that’s your choice. …
You can favor balanced budgets and favor more immediate help for the middle class. You can be in favor of reforming the tax code dramatically in order to reform it moderately. You can aim for significant entitlement reform in order to get some entitlement reform. And this is one of the reasons I’m more optimistic conservatism will be reformed. It will be reformed because politicians want to win, and they understand in the wake of the election that too few of the American people are buying what the GOP has been selling – they understand that they’ve been elected to block, not to legislate.
1. I’m all for talking about policy in ways average Americans understand. And there is nothing wrong, of course, with promoting policies that people like.
2. But just because people support an idea doesn’t mean it’s a priority. Balancing the budget polls well, but debt and deficits are not nearly as important as jobs and take-home pay. And I’m not so sure the flat tax or slashing top marginal income tax rates would be big winners in a 2016 general election.
3. The fiscal math has to work, more or less. It doesn’t for a flat tax. Nor does it for a balanced budget amendment that assumes an unrealistically low level of spending for an aging society that also wants a lethal, power-projecting military. At some point, simplicity edges over into falsehood or fantasy. And I am not sure what problem a balanced budget solves since you can put the debt on a downward trajectory without one.
4. If someone is worried about paying for their kids’ college, the quality of K-12 education, rising healthcare costs, retirement savings, stagnant wages, and whether their job is going to be outsourced to either Asia or RobotLand, what is the GOP offering, exactly? To keep inflation low and balance the budget — even if the latter means slashing basic research or unrealistically deep entitlement cuts? To cut top taxes rates with a promise that rapid economic growth will more than make up for the lost the revenue? Doesn’t seem appealing to me.