11 May 2011

Is "Starve the Beast" Conservatism on Its Last Legs?

The question: The Honorable Mr. Williams asks, "Is the coming debt ceiling fight the watershed moment for this strategy? Put another way, is this the culmination of Starve the Beast?"

The answer: No.

The Honorable Mr. Williams is a good man of sound judgment and public spirit, and so he believes that all men are like himself. But everyday politics has never been a game played only by the public-spirited, which is why Cincinnatus and the Duke of Zhou are remembered. Were their virtue normal, and not exceptional, we would have no need to remember their names. In essence, he proceeds from the false assumption that "starve the beast" means (a) starving the beast and (b) that it is possible to sate elite activists' demands.

Sometime around 1975, American politics irrevocably changed. The confluence of post-Roe, anti-ERA, and pro-Reagan mobilization created a new, self-consciously unified conservative elite which has dominated GOP politics for nearly 40 years and whose generational reproduction seems assured. (Eric Cantor was not there with Phyllis Schafly, but he is no different from the hungry young men who took part in killing ERA.) Among Democrats, the fracturing of the New Deal coalition healed, as it had to but the elite consensus that guided the Democratic Party and left politics has never recovered. It is telling that the Democratic Party features a far richer diversity of intramural debate than the Republican Party; the liberal movement inhabits dozens of "little magazines" where the intellectual Marines of an even larger number of factions contend.

The conservative movement is not monolithic, but its distribution of opinion has far less variance than its liberal counterpart. And Republicans have consistently shown a vastly greater ability to mobilize resources, direct policy, and maintain caucus discipline than Democrats--even when those goals are fundamentally not conservative. (Think, for instance, of the brutal whipping the leadership applied on Medicare Part D, which was more hated at the time among conservatives than the Iraq War. I know, because at the time I was writing for a conservative blog and that is what we all agreed.)

"Starve the beast" was never a strategy for the anti-tax, pro-military, and de-regulation faction that has been largely predominant in Republican circles since Ford fired Rockefeller. it was, instead, a slogan, rather like the Leninist "peace, land, bread" slogan that excused the practical surrender of Russian lands. The "beast" that was to be starved has, in fact, never been touched; Republicans are quite happy to put it on reduced rations by maintaining policy drift while giving the top 1% (and the top 0.1%, and the top 0.01%) of households by income generous tax breaks. Think not "starve the beast"--rather, think "feed the rich."

The acid test of whether Republican elites are more interested in serving what we used to call the moneyed interests lies in examining carefully legislative initiatives like Medicare Part D or the Walker plan for Wisconsin. These are not first-order priorities for conservatism. Indeed, it is difficult to deduce how most of these initiatives flow from the sincerely expressed ideals that philosophical conservatives embrace. But it is very easy to deduce how they serve the interests of key Republican constituencies. As those constituencies rack up the score in the Congress and in state houses across the country, it is difficult to see why they would ever relent.

Lombardi was wrong about football, but right about politics, when he said that winning wasn't everything--it was the only thing. And so too in politics. Government is for keeps, and there should be no unilateral disarmament. (One thing that I have never understood is the mentality prevalent among self-identified progressives that holds that compromise is a good thing of itself. It is one thing to take half a loaf; it is another to take half a loaf simply because someone has asserted, with no justification, that he deserves half of your whole loaf.)

The debt ceiling will be raised; it will be raised at the last possible moment; it will be raised at great cost to the poor and the Democratic. In this, Boehner is simply responding both to the structural pressures on him within his caucus but also to the fact that to do otherwise would be to miss an opportunity to press what are, I'm sure, his sincere policy preferences. And why should he do so? It is not "statesmanlike" to forbear from using your advantage in such a situation; it is merely weak. And so the "starve the beast" strategy will, apparently, fail, but it will have actually succeeded, because any concessions that he will have wrung out of the White House on this will be a net gain for his party.

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