Changes in power are always exciting. By all metrics, Tuesday night was a momentous victory for the GOP. They took control of both Senate and House for the first time in 8 years. Yes, second-term presidents routinely underperform in their 6th year. Ronald Reagan himself lost 8 Senate seats in his 6th year, and incumbent presidents have lost congressional seats in 25 of 28 midterm elections over the past century. The “midterm loss” phenomenon is real and enduring, but we should not minimize what transpired in 2014.
Winning control of a legislative chamber means that Republicans control committee assignments and the policy calendar. After six years of unprecedented obstruction, including a record number of filibusters, the GOP gets a chance to govern. The modern GOP has been masterful tearing down Obama – much of which made easy by administrative blunders and pedestrian management skills – but arguably less effective projecting a cohesive governing agenda of concrete policy proposals and details. It’s one thing to throw rhetorical bombs and gin up the far-right base (*cough – Ted Cruz – cough*). It’s another to put forth pragmatic policy ideas and legislative minutia that address complex problems and difficult trade-offs in a diverse society of 315 million people.
Policy analysts and social researchers like myself are still waiting for a coherent Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act to evaluate. Somehow alternative policy ideas are always on the horizon but never actually come to fruition. They know they hate “Obamacare” but struggle to articulate specific policy improvements. Repealing the law dozens of times is vacuous symbolism and dodges the hard work of actually constructing tailored alterations. 60+% of the electorate does not want the ACA repealed “root and branch” but rather modified and improved incrementally. Republicans need to get in the policy trenches and actually tinker with legislation. Admittedly, they are in a bit of a bind on this one.
Obamacare resembles Republican proposals put forth by Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. The idea of an individual insurance mandate originates with the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Obamacare law is modeled after Mitt Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts. The functional mechanics of the ACA do not match the communistic hyperbole perpetuated by GOP elites in recent years. If we are going to require insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and disallow lifetime caps on coverage for the chronically ill and elderly (basic consumer protections that most people agree with), we need a younger, healthier pool of insurance recipients and the individual mandate is one way to accomplish those difficult trade-offs. There might be better ways to improve our health insurance system using market mechanisms but Republicans need to articulate what those might be.
Basically all policy analysts, including myself, believe that long-term debt-load is a concern. There are some differences of opinion over how urgently we need to reduce long-term debt, but reduction is broadly desirable as a policy goal. In turn, Republicans are perceived as the party of “fiscal responsibility” and running on reducing federal spending is a GOP campaign stalwart. They are serious spending hawks on many discretionary budget items and much of this effort is laudable. We need this voice in Washington. However, when rubber meets the road, the GOP struggles to articulate viable paths to fiscal health. This occurs on both sides of the ledger. While Republicans claim to be “against spending”, in reality they tend to support the most expensive items in the federal budget. Three budgetary items: Social Security, Medicare, and military constitute the bulk of federal spending and Republicans tend to campaign on and support these ginormous programs.
There is an adage in policy circles that “America is a risky place to be born, but a glorious place to grow old”, meaning that we tend to direct ample resources to programs that support the elderly. The Republican base increasingly consists of elderly citizens and they actively campaign on maintaining Social Security and Medicare programs (e.g. “Obama is gutting Medicare” as a rallying cry). It’s easy to demonize redistributive, means-tested programs like food assistance or Head Start and those programs do need some streamlining and revision or even elimination, but the food stamp program is less than 2% of federal spending! Eventually, we have to address the elephants in the room (SS, Medicare, military) – no pun intended – and Republicans (as well as Democrats) have not articulated adequate policy solutions to these big budget issues. In short, Republicans tend to like spending on the elderly and military and those things are very expensive!
On the revenue side of the ledger, Republicans hold a doctrinaire anti-tax position. They are unwilling to raise taxes on anyone ever. Since the Reagan years, this is right-wing gospel. During the 2012 GOP primary debates, candidates would not even agree to just $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending reductions. When the general election came, Romney and Ryan struggled mightily to articulate paths to fiscal health without revenue increases. Indeed, Romney ran on further reducing tax rates and making up the difference with closing loopholes that he could never name. Non-partisan Congressional Budget Office scoring showed the Romney/Ryan budgets – and Ryan’s more recent budgets – falling deep into the red because of lost tax revenue, yet tax cutting remains an article of faith on the right, not an avenue to fiscal health. Doggedly cutting taxes makes it harder to balance budgets and pay down long-term debt that needs curtailment. It’s not clear how always and everywhere cutting taxes is fiscally responsible exactly (look to Sam Brownback’s recent disastrous experiment in Kansas). Indeed, we used to have much higher tax rates on wealthy individuals throughout the 20th century and we rarely had budget deficits. Beginning with Reagan’s Tax Reform Act of 1986, top marginal rates fell dramatically from 70% to 28% and we have run deep deficits ever since.
Most Americans and policy analysts agree that we need a strategic mixture of spending cuts and tax increases to close our budgetary gap. Eventually, the governing GOP majority will need to address revenues if they genuinely believe in improving long-term fiscal health not merely satisfying ideological impulses. One way to tackle this would involve cleaning up the tax code. This is something we can get done. We do not need higher rates per say and we could even lower the corporate rates significantly, but we need meaningful tax reform that actually closes the labyrinth of existing loopholes and raises substantial revenue. We need more than mere anti-tax ideology alone, especially as long-term debt looms and a smaller number of people increasingly control the bulk of America’s wealth. During the Bush years, we went to war and provided prescription drugs for the elderly (Medicare-Part D) and CUT taxes in the process. Cut taxes while transitioning to war footing! Republican Dwight Eisenhower is rolling over in his grave. That is a recipe for fiscal calamity. I don’t think Obama and Congressional Dems have necessarily articulated adequate long-term fixes to SS and Medicare, but they are at least willing to suggest that unpopular tax increases be part of the fiscal mix. Similar to the individual mandate in the ACA, Dems at least show some willingness to buck popularity and face difficult trade-offs in exchange for improved policy functioning. Republicans will eventually need to eat their vegetables (but it could be organic long beans with freshly churned butter – more revenue through closing loopholes not increasing rates).
Every Republican victory speech last night included something along the lines of “we need a stronger foreign policy”… That sounds good as stump speech platitude but what does that mean exactly? Once again, we have observed unwavering criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy approach to things like Syria, ISIS and Ebola, but we rarely if ever here specific policy prescriptions from the right. What would they do differently? Ever since the power vacuum was opened with the short-sided invasion of Iraq, it is unclear how we deal with nimble foreign threats and the continuous rise of splinter extremist groups. Is the Republican response to have perpetual war in the Middle East and extensive ground troops fighting indefinitely? What does having a “stronger” foreign policy mean exactly? And how will we achieve these ambitious foreign policy goals – whatever those might be – while simultaneously cutting taxes? I’m more than willing to be critical toward Obama’s response to ISIS and Ebola, but what exactly are the inadequacies and what would you do differently? The search for policy specifics and coherent governing approaches lives on.
The policy wonk side of me is excited! We have a dearth of quality, workable, pragmatic policy ideas on Capitol Hill. This is the Republican’s time to shine. They could look back to governing majorities in the 1990s that worked to streamline, improve, and reform governmental functioning, not abolish it completely. The American populace as a whole is not nearly as staunchly right-wing as the House Tea Party Caucus. Newly minted Republican Senators like Ted Cruz and Joni Ernst appear more comfortable as purist demagogues preaching to the fringe rather than serious policy wonks looking for pragmatic compromises in a complex policy environment. The question remains. How can we move forward in substantive ways on immigration, health care, taxes, stagnant wages and mobility, energy, veteran’s affairs, education, infrastructure, foreign policy, etc? I’m not convinced the new Republican majority can just pass easy ideologically driven bills that Obama will inevitably veto.
There needs to be meaningful compromise and attempts to reach out to President Obama and Senate Democrats, who can filibuster carte blanche much like Senate Republicans have done over the past 6 years. My hope is that Senate Democrats do not reflexively filibuster and obstruct like Republican counterparts have done in the recent past. We need more than Limbaugh-style bellicose antipathy toward political opponents. We need more than “libtards” and “cancervatives.” We need an admission that we live in a complicated world that requires thoughtful solutions in the nebulous middle-ground. Let’s sit down and make progress!