As readers will well recall, in the 2012 elections, Republicans saw their hopes of defeating President Obama end in an electoral landslide, while their expectation that they would take control of the U.S. Senate was dashed when the Democrats actually add two seats to their majority. Based on those results, there was a great deal of discussion about whether the Republican Party would change any of the positions that had proved so unpopular for it at the polls.
Although there has been much hand-wringing about the election results, and concern about the Republicans’ especially weak showing among women and Hispanic voters, the word to which party leaders have returned again and again is “principles.” House Speaker John Boehner has said that Republicans’ duty is “to continue to fight for our principles as a party.” The chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee argued that his party should try to communicate better, but “without ever retreating from our principles.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was especially blunt. Insisting that the election results would not “intimidate” his party into changing its views, Ryan asked rhetorically about the party’s 2012 loss, “That means we surrender our principles? That means we stop believing in what we believe in?”
It all sounds quite grand, in its own way. Why should anyone back down from their deeply-held beliefs? Yet one must wonder about a party that has been taken over by its most extreme ideologues, a party that has now been spanked at the polls (even during an economic crisis that those ideologues deliberately worsened, in an attempt to gain electoral advantage), and a party that is led by people who—when faced with those developments—merely say that they cannot think of anything that they would change, except for their public relations.
In fact, the Republicans have been abandoning their proclaimed principles in rather significant ways. As I will discuss in this column, however, the one principle from which Republicans have refused to back down is class warfare—taking from the middle class and poor in order to give to the rich. And that “principle” is not a principle at all, not even by the Republicans’ own stated logic. Instead, they are simply showing that their deepest commitment is to the belief that we should do nothing to stop the suffering of those in need—even if those who are suffering are children.
The Republican Principles That Are Evidently Negotiable: Everything but Reverse Robin Hood
For all the self-important talk about principles from Republican leaders, we have already seen significant movement away from at least two core issues that have long riled the Republican base.
First, Republicans across the country have spent the past few months in an accelerating race to see who can sound less regressive on gay rights. Suddenly, gay marriage is not only something that it might not be wise to oppose too loudly, but many prominent Republicans have signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, endorsing the pro-gay marriage position in high-profile arguments that the Court will hear soon.
Let us not forget just how much of a change this is—in a very, very short amount of time—for national Republicans. Fanning the flames of public bigotry against gays was a key part of the national Republican campaign strategy in 2004. In the most recent election, there was still lockstep agreement among Republican leaders that there should be a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Of course, it is not (yet) true that gay marriage has become a non-issue among Republicans, especially current members of the House and Senate. Even Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who recently announced his change of heart about gay marriage after learning that his son is gay, would only go so far as to say that the question of gay marriage should be left to the states.
Even so, the response to Portman’s announcement is telling. Republicans might grouse about his statement, but there was no immediate outpouring of anger from all quarters of his party, with a guaranteed primary challenge in his next reelection bid, nor was there any extreme retribution of the sort that the extremists who control his party have rained down upon those who have deviated on culture-war issues in the past.
Even more significantly, the recent movement among prominent Republicans on immigration issues has been nothing short of stunning. Yesterday’s New York Times reported that “Republican opposition to legalizing the status of millions of illegal immigrants is crumbling in the nation’s capital as leading lawmakers in the party scramble to halt eroding support among Hispanic voters.” Notably, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky—a favorite of his party’s core conservative base—has joined fellow Tea Partier Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in endorsing significant liberalization of the immigration laws.
Again, the contrast with Republicans’ uniform position from just a few months ago could not be more stark. Even then, anything short of an unwavering commitment to throwing out all eleven million undocumented immigrants, and building up border patrols in order to prevent anyone else from illegally getting into the country in the future, was enough to get a Republican booed offstage at any party event.
Understanding Republicans’ changing stances on a third core issue, opposition to women’s choice regarding reproductive decisions (not just banning abortion, but more recently even opposing contraception), is a bit more complicated, but still instructive. There has been a great deal of extremism on reproductive rights at the state level, but at the national level, Republicans are generally being mere bystanders on the issue. Because reproductive rights are overwhelmingly popular with voters (especially the women voters who abandoned Republicans in the 2012 election), national party leaders have apparently decided to let the absolutists in their party do their worst at the state level, while allowing the issue at least to fade into the background of the national Republican party’s active agenda.
Where Are the Principles? The Difference Between Budget Issues and Other Conservative Positions
Is there something about Republicans’ past fierce opposition on these three issues—gay rights, realism on immigration, and reproductive freedom—that they are somehow now willing to call unprincipled? On all three issues, we heard for years that the Republicans’ stances were not only required by logic, but commanded by God. Yet when it comes to responding to the results of the 2012 elections, a party that publicly insists that it will stick to its principles is busily compromising and running for the exits.
The biggest issue on which Republicans have refused to bend, of course, is the federal budget. Even if it is true that Republicans have been willing to sell out their other so-called principles, is it possible that their insistence on holding the line on budgets is—if not quite admirable—at least a matter of finding one issue on which they really are willing to hold a principled line, no matter how repellent that principle might be?
Unless one simply bleeds the meaning of the word “principle” dry, leaving nothing but the idea that anything a person cares about is a principle, then the answer is clearly no. (Under such and expanded definition, though, never eating ice cream after dinner is a principle, and promising to watch every Adam Sandler movie is also a principle.) The Republicans not only fail to articulate any good reason to uphold what they say are their budgetary principles, but they cannot even accomplish what they say they are trying to accomplish.
One possible principle behind Republicans’ commitment to slashing budgets is a commitment to the well-being of “our children and grandchildren.” One certainly hears—over and over—pious claims from Republicans that the deep principle that motivates them holds that we must stop current generations from “piling debt” on the heads of innocents who, because they are too young to vote (or not yet born), cannot stop us from stealing their birthrights.
If this were truly the Republicans’ principle, however, the election results still should have caused Republicans to reconsider and moderate their position. Choices about how to divide the economic pie between current and future generations must, of course, be made by current generations. Because current voters love their children and grandchildren very much, however, the 2012 election results can reasonably be viewed as a statement that current generations think that the problems that we are facing today are important enough that—even if it puts a somewhat higher burden onto future generations—that is a decision that we must reluctantly make.
Fortunately, of course, the economic reality is that we are not actually choosing between current and future generations, in the simplistic way that Republicans have claimed as they have sought to frame this debate. Instead, much of what the Republicans have advocated in the name of “our children and grandchildren” has actually harmed many children who are living today. Cuts in Head Start, nutrition programs, health programs, and other important initiatives have all harmed millions of children directly.
The notion that we should be “principled,” and thus should harm current children in order not to harm future children, is obviously nonsense. Still, maybe the budget cuts that harm children are in some sense accidental. Perhaps the Republicans would not have cut those programs, if they had thought about the consequences of each specific cut, rather than mindlessly talking at all times about “cutting spending.”
As nice as that theory about Republican thinking sounds, however, it does not hold up to the evidence. The recent debate over the sequester-related budget cuts was largely focused on the indiscriminate nature of the cuts, but House Republicans were reportedly quite happy that the domestic spending cuts were going to take effect.
Moreover, as I noted in a Verdict column last Fall, the Majority Leader in the House has reportedly expressed a specific desire to “reduce programs for the poor, including eliminating nutrition and education financing.” In other word, these cruel cuts—cuts that would harm innocent children—are not only tolerated by Republicans and their leaders, but they are consciously desired.
What principles are left—assuming that “harming the children of the poor” does not count as a principle that the Republicans would claim to be upholding? The best that one can say about national Republican leaders’ position on budgetary issues is that they have drawn a line in the sand on one issue only: The government of this country should not be in the business of helping people in need, especially if doing so requires taxing the rich.
We are not, moreover, talking only about programs that help the desperately poor. The programs that Republicans are really interested in cutting—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—all help middle-class people stay in the middle class, especially in retirement. Medicare and Medicaid could become unaffordable within the next few decades, if we continue to protect the profits of drug makers and for-profit hospital chains. By contrast, Social Security is, at worst, going to need a small amount of extra funding—but that funding could easily come from progressive changes in the tax code.
The point is that “people in need” are not always the same as the unfortunate people whom we often call “the needy.” The Republicans’ clearly stated, deepest desire is to eliminate the programs that are there when non-rich people need help—when they retire, when they become ill, when bad luck befalls them. The best the Republicans can tell us is that “the free market” will do a better job of protecting those people, but there is simply no reason (other than blind ideology) to believe that that is true.
I am glad that there is evidence of movement by Republicans away from some of their most hateful, regressive stands of the last few decades. It is a sad insight into the radicalized Republican agenda, however, that their last line of defense is to give to the rich and take from everyone else.