Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 13, 2008
POLITICS: "Fiscal Conservatives" Unclear On The Concept

The Washington Post, looking at the GOP rout in the Northeast, sells the hoary old myth that there is a large and coherent "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" faction that got ignored by the national party:

What happened, say some current and former Republican leaders, is that the national party moved away from the issues of fiscal conservatism, small government and lower taxes. As the base of the party shifted to the South and West, social conservatives and evangelicals moved to the forefront, and issues such as abortion, school prayer and gay marriage took primacy on the national party's agenda -- in the process turning off more moderate voters in this part of the country.

"I'm a Northeasterner. I grew up in New York City," said Christopher Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. "The evangelical members of the party have their issues, and their issues are important to them." But here, he said, "the Northeastern brand of Republican philosophy . . . is based on smaller government and less taxes. We're not interested in what's going on in the bedroom."

Former senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was the epitome of the moderate-to-liberal northeastern Republican -- strongly pro-choice on abortion, a supporter of gay marriage and stem cell research, an opponent of the war in Iraq. As a fiscal conservative, Chafee opposed President Bush's tax cuts.

I'll leave aside for now the social-issue side of this argument (hey, when did Congress vote on school prayer?), the short answer to which is that smaller government and more federalism is the best way to reassure Northeastern voters that they can support social conservatives nationally without disturbing their own states' social policies at home, and focus on the problem with the use of the term "fiscal conservative": it has no fixed meaning.

You can see this in the bold passages in what I quoted: you have some people saying fiscal conservatism is about low taxes, but then you have Chafee voting for higher taxes and opposing tax cuts proposed and passed by a Republican President and Congress, also on the theory of being "fiscally conservative." These people can't agree what they stand for.

The problem is that too many people have gotten locked into two notions peddled by the Democrats and their media allies: that balancing the budget is the be-all and end-all of "fiscal conservatism," and that spending cuts are impossible, so the only way to ever balance the budget is to raise taxes - and then, when spending keeps rising, raise them again. The WaPo, typically, simply assumes these premises.

No wonder voters who want lower taxes abandoned these people. And maybe if they'd made a concerted effort to beat back overspending, they'd have been listened to. It is a fair criticism of Bush and the GOP Congress that they failed to restrain federal spending, and even added a new and hugely costly entitlement by adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare. But where were the Northeastern "fiscal conservatives" when the spending battles were going unfought? Where were they when the GOP nominated a genuine spending hawk for President in John McCain and he couldn't even win New Hampshire? In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that the best spending records in the GOP come from people like Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint who are also rock-ribbed social conservatives. Even in the Northeast, the guy who's fought the toughest spending battles is Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, a solid social conservative. (Cato, for example, gives Carcieri the best fiscal report card of any Republican Governor in the Northeast). The social liberals in the party, with precious few exceptions, haven't held up their end of the deal.

Consider two candidates. Candidate A promises that he'll spend 15 cents for every dollar you make, and tax you 12; he'll make up the difference by issuing Treasury bills. Candidate B promises you a balanced budget...he'll spend 22 cents of every dollar and tax you 22. If your interest is in smaller government and lower taxes, how can you favor Candidate B? How can you call Candidate B the "fiscal conservative" if you intend that term to have any meaning whatsoever?

I suppose if you play with the numbers long enough you can argue that excessive federal deficit financing leads to runaway growth in interest expenditures, but in the real world the federal government has the world's lowest borrowing rate and has rarely been close to as heavily leveraged (in terms of debt service as a percentage of annual expenditures) as the kinds of corporations that get themselves in serious trouble with too much debt. Some debt is healthy. And even if you are concerned about deficits, the cure is certainly not to let spending run free and just keep jacking up taxes; it's to bring spending in line with tax revenues. That's what living within your means is really about.

The key to winning back voters disenchanted with the GOP as a steward of taxpayer funds is spending and the size of government; show we can cut those, and broader support will follow. I don't agree with all of P.J. O'Rourke's diagnoses but he's surely right that the GOP lost credibility by failing to deliver tangible progress in shrinking the federal footprint. The opportunity for the GOP's revival will come from the fact that the whole federal government is now in the hands of people who intend to expand that footprint like there's no tomorrow. Sarah Palin gets this, as several Republican Governors do, but of course, she and other GOP Governors who grasp the theory now have to go back and prove they can pare back their own state budgets in tough economic times. Because at the end of the day, holding the line on spending is the real test of fiscal conservatism.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:42 PM | Politics 2008 | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

It sounds like you are saying the term, "fiscal conservative," has been overused to the point of losing any meaning. The term has become a cliche.

Cutting spending is hard. No one wins elections by cutting benefits or defense spending. That's where the big money is.

Continued deficits are easy. They are always justified, short term, by either emergency or something like an emergency (many politicians can create an emergency out of thin air).

I am not impressed by anyone who claims to be tough on spending when their states receive $1.35 for every $1 they send Washington. Get off the public teat. http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/show/266.html

Conservative and liberal have become cliches as well.

Posted by: Zufall at November 13, 2008 2:56 PM

Had a conversation w/a former local politician about this the other day. He's very successful, very smart and extremely knowledgable, so I respect him & his opinion. Anyway, he went on about being a lifelong Georgia Democrat ("old styl dixiecrat") and how he was a fiscal conservative but a social moderate. My response was "everyone who isn't pro-life says that. EVERY. ONE."

Quick, anyone, name a social liberal.

Posted by: RW at November 13, 2008 3:34 PM

Conservative and liberal have become cliches as well.

More like shorthand. If you describe someone accurately as a liberal or a conservative, in most cases you can accurately predict their position on 85-95% of all issues - most people aren't ideological/party line all the way down, even elected officials, but the shorthand usually saves a lot of time. If you called Obama a "liberal," you'd have the overwhelming majority of his positions down pat without learning anything more.

Posted by: Crank at November 13, 2008 5:10 PM

The Republicans will never be the party of fiscal conservatism as long as they play borrow and spend games. Because then you pay interest for nothing, and slough off greater and greater debt to younger people. Starting with Reagan that's all they've been doing.

Posted by: robert at November 13, 2008 8:22 PM

The Republicans will never be the party of fiscal conservatism as long as they play borrow and spend games. Because then you pay interest for nothing, and slough off greater and greater debt to younger people. Starting with Reagan that's all they've been doing.

Posted by: robert at November 13, 2008 8:23 PM

Liberal and Conservative is simple shorthand for pro choice or anti choice. Or use pro life, whatever you want. But abortion laws have become the sole criteria used now to define what used to be a broader definition.

Posted by: Daryl Rosenblatt at November 13, 2008 8:41 PM

On further review, I agree with you Crank. Shorthand is better on that one.

I wanted to come up with a list of other modern cliches, but the nyquil is working fast and the Jets are winning (although I am a Giants fan, I am, and have always been, a Jets sympathizer).

Posted by: Zufall at November 13, 2008 10:03 PM

Here in Philadelphia we have this morning radio talk show host who has been beating this fiscally-conservative-socially-liberal drum since before the 2006 elections. The funny thing is that the argument never holds up to historical scrutiny.

If it were true that Northeasters really want the fiscally-conservative-socially-liberal guy, then "Former senator Lincoln Chafee" would still be "Senator Lincoln Chafee" (as an aside, Sheldon Whitehouse, the guy who beat Chafee, is probably more socially conservative than Chafee). And in my home state, why would Pennsylvanians have ousted Rick Santorum and elected Bob Casey, Jr., who is fiscally liberal and socially sort-of-conservative?

Here in Philly, that talk host I mentioned above pulled hard for Tom Ridge to be McCain's running mate, again using the fiscally-conservative-socially-liberal argument. While he still thinks that Ridge was the better pick over Palin, he concedes that it would not have made a difference for McCain.

Posted by: Cannon at November 14, 2008 8:58 AM

"And in my home state, why would Pennsylvanians have ousted Rick Santorum and elected Bob Casey, Jr., who is fiscally liberal and socially sort-of-conservative?"

My guess would be they realized Santorum was a lunatic.

Posted by: jim at November 14, 2008 11:31 AM

Sorry, my comment above should've said: Quick, anyone, name a self-describe fiscal liberal.

Posted by: RW at November 14, 2008 1:34 PM

"The problem is that too many people have gotten locked into two notions peddled by the Democrats and their media allies: that balancing the budget is the be-all and end-all of "fiscal conservatism . . . ."

Before I comment on the accuracy of that statement, I can't believe you would be blaming that on a liberal media. Quoted in the article are -Republican leaders.- Have they been brainwashed by a liberal media too?

I fully agree that balancing the budget is not the be-all, end-all of fiscal conservatism, and I also agree that -some- debt is good, but my position is that we have altogether too much debt at this point and time, and since both parties seem unwilling/unsuccessful (apart from Clinton admin and Congress during that time) to make spending cuts, balancing the budget going forward is at least a good first step.

And it seems to be that if you can't get your spending cuts passed and you still plan to increase spending, then the fiscally responsible alternative -is- to raise taxes.

Your position that debt/GDP is the true measure is defensible, but I don't agree it's the sole focus, and my question to you is what percentage are you willing to tolerate before you say it's too much?

You also state:

"I suppose if you play with the numbers long enough you can argue that excessive federal deficit financing leads to runaway growth in interest expenditures, "

Play with the numbers?!? You don't need to play with them much, I'll just repeat what I posted a week or so ago- the top eight budget expenditures for 2008- and note that interest on debt is #6:

In $billions:
Defense 624
Soc. Sec. 617
Welfare 433
Medicare 391
Health 281
Debt int. 249
Educ/Job 89
Vet ben. 85

Source: http://money.cnn.com/2008/10/24/news/economy/spending/index.htm
Data from the Dept. of Treasury

So, when do you suggest that interest payments on debt will get too high? If Republicans are suggesting that this amount is fine and nowhere near "run-away," then how can that party legitimately complain, from a fiscal standpoint, about the money that -currently- goes into health services or welfare?

If Republicans are taking the position that continued deficit spending is somehow consistent with fiscal conservatism, then they -will- lose votes in the northeast. In particular, mine.

Posted by: MVH at November 14, 2008 6:57 PM

test

Posted by: RoubpilibPlus at November 15, 2008 4:58 AM

Do phrases like Fiscal Conservative, Liberal Republican, Conservative Marxist have any meaning? They are oxymorons.

I call myself a Small Government Conservative. What that means, to me, that I am a Libertarian who accepts conservative restrictions on individuals to protect and defend American Society. That is, we don't throw away two millennia of culture casually. We have social practices which seem to work, even if we don't know exactly why.

Many things follow from this. A small government is likely to be less intrusive and to cost less than big government. Any government should live within its means set by the voters, so no large deficits unless in times of war.

Individuals should be free to screw up their lives so long as they harm no one and pay the price for their mistakes. If they are unable to survive without help, they should look for charity, but no government welfare.

There should be a constant tug of war between the rights of the individual and the society. Without a predictable, life affirming and moral culture then individuals cannot be at peace with each other.

Mostly, I believe in manners over morals: that no person has an ethical right to harm another. And that anyone who works for the government has fewer rights than their boss: the common citizen.

In short, the founding fathers were close, but no human institution is perfect.

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