Terrance Heath

Why Conservatives Have Lost 'The Real Referendum'

Filed By Terrance Heath | October 05, 2012 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: conservative politics, government, Mitt Romney, new deal, obamacare, paul krugman, Paul Ryan, real referendum


In his most recent column, Paul Krugman makes a convincing case that the "real referendum" in this election isn't about President Obama's (real or imagined) economic policies, but about "the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy."

Krugman predicts that President Obama will win this resolution, and goes on to question whether the President will honor the will of American voters in his second term.

If Obama wins, that means conservatives will have lost the "real referendum." Conservatives have already lost the "real referendum." They've been losing it for a long time — and it's worth considering why that's the case.

Krugman writes:

Yet there is a sense in which the election is indeed a referendum, but of a different kind. Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy. Will they vote for politicians who want to replace Medicare with Vouchercare, who denounce Social Security as "collectivist" (as Paul Ryan once did), who dismiss those who turn to social insurance programs as people unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?

If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age.

So, what do the polls indicate?

So, why do the polls indicate dismal prospect for conservatives in the "real referendum"? I can think of a few reasons.

First, like I said earlier, millions of Americans heard Mitt Romney's disdainful comments about "47 percent" of Americans, and knew on a gut level that he was talking about them and their loved-ones. Their responses made one thing very clear — they didn't like it.

Even Americans who aren't technically part of the 47 percent, because they do earn enough to owe federal income taxes, were stung Romney's assertion that people like "them" — who are struggling though the recession and the unemployment crisis — just don't want to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives." For them, Romney's remarks confirmed their worst suspicions about him: that Romney knows nothing about "personal responsibility" or about their lives, and doesn't care to.

The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can't pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can't necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That's what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier, that give you time and space to focus on what you want to focus on.

That's what money has bought Romney, too. He's a guy who sold his dad's stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife's decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That's great! That's the dream.

The problem is living the dream has blinded him to other people's reality. His comments evince no understanding of how difficult it is to focus on college when you're also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, how awful it is to choose between skipping a day on a job you can't afford to lose and letting your sick child fend for herself. The working poor haven't abdicated responsibility for their lives. They're drowning in it.

Second, even Americans who are fortunate enough to (a) have jobs and (b) earn enough to owe federal income taxes, know that even if they aren't part of the 47 percent, they and their love-ones are part of the 96 percent of Americans who have benefitted from government assistance.

But political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides argue that this definition of "government benefit" is far too narrow. If you include all federal benefits that go to specific households, from Social Security to even tax expenditures like the mortgage-interest deduction, then survey data from 2008 reveals that 96 percent of Americans have received assistance from the federal government at some point in their life:

What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans – 96 percent – have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.

On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government's role was "submerged," meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees' health insurance.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have also benefitted from received government assistance. The difference between them and millions of middle- and working-class Americans is that Romney and Ryan don't seem to realize how much that assistance has mattered to them. Many of us in the other 96 percent know it only too well. After all, some of us are barely holding on, and would fall into the 47 percent without it.

In fact, this may be where the right-wing campaign to teach Americans to hate their government stalls out. However much they have come to dislike government, Americans want the things that government provides; things like, clean air, safe food, education, health care, disaster relief, etc. Insomuch as deficit hawks have managed to rouse some Americans to demand cuts in government spending on domestic programs, enthusiasm for draconian cuts wanes considerably when the budget axe strikes closer to home. It's not hard to understand why: because "the 96 percent" mentioned above knows how deeply they and their families will feel the cut.

Finally, Americans have already rejected conservatives' best ideas for a "conservative welfare state". Paul Ryan and his advocacy for ending Medicare as we know it (and Medicaid, too), are symbolic of the reason why conservatives are losing the battle of ideas. Revelations that Ryan once called Social Security and Medicare "third party or socialist-based systems," that he wanted to privatize in order to "break the back" of a "collectivist philosophy," probably hasn't helped the Romney Ryan campaign with the 96 percent mentioned above.

In fact, the more people hear about Paul Ryan's budget, the more they hate itespecially in GOP battleground states.

House Republicans can call their budget a "Path to Prosperity" all they want, but as far as the American Majority is concerned, it's a path to political defeat for the politicians who support it-if progressives make the right arguments in favor of an alternative that grows the economy and protects the middle class.

That's what a new survey of 56 "battleground" congressional districts released today by Democracy Corps and Women's Voices/Women Vote shows. In these districts the House Republican budget-for which Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been the chief architect and salesman-only gets 41 percent support "without any description." When people are told that the Ryan budget "cuts taxes for corporations and those making over one million dollars a year," "repeals the health care reform law and the Wall Street reform law," and would "phase out traditional Medicare over the next decade, replacing it with a voucher system," support for the Ryan budget drops to 34 percent.

"The more voters hear about the Republicans' newest Ryan budget the more sharply they turn against the Ryan budget and these Republican incumbents," pollster Stan Greenberg wrote in a memo about the poll. "To be sure, Americans remain deeply concerned about government spending-and Republicans do get heard when they talk about how vulnerable our debt makes the country in the long term — but Americans are poised to punish those who would balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the middle class."

Paul Ryan's dust-up with Catholic bishops and Georgetown University faculty over what his budget would mean for the poor suggests that Republicans have stumbled over an old problem. After noting that Ryan's budget would decimate government programs that serve the poor, the Catholic bishops and Georgetown faculty penned open letters to Ryan, saying that his budget failed to meet the "moral criteria" that the federal budget protect programs for the poor. Ryan claimed that his plan doesn't hurt poor people, and defended his budget in a speech at Georgetown University

Ryan contended that a government-centered approach was failing the poor and that his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty as well as manage the debt. "The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are 'living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.'" "Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation's founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith," Ryan said. "We put faith in people, not in government."

In the wake of Ryan's kerfluffle with the Catholic Bishops and the Georgetown faculty, conservatives rallied to Ryan's support. Some, like Yula Levin, echoed Ryan's "faith in people, not in government," by calling on conservatives to envision and articulate a new welfare system, based on conservative principles, that would replace our "failed" welfare state. Michael Gerson, the man behind George W. Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism," offered a definition of "reform conservatism" that he said would get the job done.

But Obama's overreach has also produced another conservative reaction – a Reform Conservatism. The key figure here is Paul Ryan, the main author of two House Republican budgets. The movement's intellectual headquarters is National Affairs, a journal of small but potent distribution. Its brain trust includes thinkers such as Yuval Levin, James Capretta and Peter Wehner.

The reform movement – being prone to long, self-reflective policy articles – is not hard to summarize.

First, it asserts that America's massive fiscal crisis is a result of public-sector inefficiency. So it looks for ways to achieve the ends of the welfare state both through more private means and more efficient public means.

There's just a couple of problems with that. First, it's not a new idea. As Michael Lind at Salon pointed out that, conservatives have long wanted to recreate the welfare state in their own image. They just never been able to come up with anything that works as well as what we've already got.

In the words of the late Irving Kristol, "The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind … they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it." Intelligent conservatives have always understood that parties and movements of the right cannot simply abolish the economic safety net for the elderly, the unemployed and the sick, and replace it with nothing at all.

…From the 1970s to the 1990s, social conservatives and some neoconservatives boosted "intermediate institutions" as the answer to the liberal welfare state. Drawing on the British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke's defense of "little platoons" and conservative sociology that stresses the dehumanizing, alienating effects of modern bureaucracy, these conservatives hoped that many of the welfare functions of modern federal, state and local governments could be performed through more intimate communities like charities and churches. Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas, led the campaign for creating a "faith-based" economic safety net.

At the same time, influential libertarians on the right had a radically different approach, inspired by Milton Friedman, leader of the Chicago School of free-market economists. The idea of a quasi-feudal alliance between church and state did not appeal to free-market radicals. Like the neoconservative Irving Kristol, Milton Friedman, who called himself a "classical liberal" rather than a conservative, and his followers, realized that the right could not abolish social insurance and aid to the poor without providing some alternative.

Their alternative has been a voucherized welfare state, in which the federal government provides citizens with vouchers in the form of tax credits, which can be used to purchase financial assets for retirement and private health insurance. The premise is that competition among providers for voucher money will drive down costs, reducing federal spending on the economic safety net without increasing individual insecurity. (The premise is dubious, because in imperfect markets characterized by monopoly or oligopoly, like nearby hospitals and prestigious universities, competition does not work to lower prices, while subsidies allow producers to hike prices.)

Second, as Lind points out in a follow-up piece, Americans have already rejected the "conservative welfare state." And conservatives unwittingly helped make the case for the existing welfare state.

Ideas for voucherizing public schools, voucherizing healthcare and voucherizing Social Security have dominated discussions of reform for the last half-century – not because they are popular, but because a few right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers have poured money into libertarian propaganda mills disguised as think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Heritage Foundation (where I worked briefly in my misspent conservative youth). Notwithstanding the vast sums invested by the plutocrats of the right to popularize Friedman's ideas, every element of the Friedmanite welfare state has been rejected by the American public.

…Although Friedman's alternative to the modern welfare state has not met the test of public approval and legislative enactment, the late economist unwittingly performed an invaluable service to the center and the left. He accepted the legitimacy of public sector guarantees of minimal income for the poor, universal access to education and universal access to adequate healthcare and retirement income security.

Milton Friedman took for granted the legitimacy of the welfare state, in both of its forms – means-tested public assistance for the poor and universal, middle-class social insurance. He believed it was utopian for his fellow libertarians to propose abolishing public assistance and middle-class social insurance programs outright. That is why he proposed the negative income tax, as a substitute for other means-tested programs for the poor. And it is why he proposed voucherizing universal, middle-class social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare, along with public K-12 education.

The ascendance of Paul Ryan from the "Young Gun" of House Republicans to the number-two man on the GOP presidential ticket could be a sign of conservatives' continued support for ideas that already caused them to lose the "real referendum" Krugman defined. The again, as Jamelle Bouie suggests, it could be a feint.

This is neither compassionate nor an attempt at achieving "the ends of the welfare state through more private means and more efficient public means"-it's a whole scale attack on the idea of social responsibility. Paul Ryan doesn't call for new charity, and he doesn't even attempt to provide incentives for these newly enriched rich people to give away their money. It's simply Robin Hood in reverse; taking from everyone to give the most privileged. The methods might be new, but the idea-that the strongest, most powerful people deserve the spoils of civilization-is as old as human history. Paul Ryan is but one in a long line of people who have worked to enrich the wealthy at all costs.

In the run-up to the first presidential debate Wednesday night, the Romney/Ryan campaign has tried to rebrand their man as a "compassionate conservative," in the wake of that devastating recording of Mitt's "47 percent" remarks. But his own budget, and his choice of running mate suggest that Romney and the Republicans have no ideas besides those that Americans have rejected, and that have cause conservatives to lose the "real referendum" again and again.

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