David Frum

12.12.12

Doomsday Conservatives: Too Many Hormones, Too Little Plan

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen yesterday urged Republicans to repeat the tactics of summer 2011, and once again threaten to force a default on the obligations of the United States.

I wrote a short blog post suggesting that this doomsday approach was poorly considered.

Thiessen rebutted with a laconic Tweet:

"Frum votes for surrender."

This exchange reminds me of the old joke about the State Department. Whenever a president calls for options, the joke goes, the State Department will generate three:

A) Surrender

B) Global thermonuclear war

C) Preferred State Department policy.

But at least the State Department can think of three options! Thiessen's imagination stretches only to two, A & B.

Unfortunately, it's exactly this mode of thinking that has brought the GOP to its present sorry pass.

Can we recall please that one important reason we have arrived at this fiscal impasse is precisely the "Viva la meurto!" attitude championed here by Marc Thiessen?

The sequester scheduled to commence operation in the new year was devised as a face-saving escape route from the disaster of the last debt-ceiling blackmail stunt.

Likewise, Mitt Romney's acquiescence to conservative demands that he adopt the Ryan budget - and add yet another tax cut for the wealthiest atop the Ryan budget - is an important reason that we today have a president who wishes the Bush tax cuts to lapse, rather than a president who would sign their extension or make them permanent.

Over the past four years, Republicans have suffered from a combination of tactical radicalism joined to strategic nihilism.

It was this combination that brought us to "Waterloo" on healthcare reform.

It was this combination that gave us the Ryan budget.

It was this combination that produced the losing Romney campaign.

It is this same fateful combination that Marc Thiessen is urging now.

To understand better the nihilism of Thiessen's thinking, I must now quote his column at greater length. Thiessen's call for the use of the debt-default threat is part of a larger plan. Here it is, in full.

STEP ONE: Stand your ground on taxes. You’ve already conceded hundreds of billions in new revenue through limiting deductions. If Obama refuses to compromise, pass legislation extending current tax rates for all Americans. Let Obama reject it and take us over the “fiscal cliff” — and then be prepared to live under the Clinton tax rates while negotiations on tax reform continue. In the short term, Americans may blame you. You can recover from that. What you will never recover from is surrendering your principles and giving up your brand as the party of low taxes and limited government.

STEP TWO: Go on the offensive. Immediately put forward a plan to fundamentally reform the tax code. You will be able to outbid Obama and the Democrats in any tax-cut fight. And the intellectual groundwork has already been done. During the supercommittee negotiations last year, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) put forward a plan to lower rates, raise revenue and limit deductions. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has a revenue-neutral corporate tax reform plan that lowers the rate to 25 percent and moves to a territorial system.

On the spending side, “soak the rich” by getting rid of the billions of dollars in government benefits, taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare the wealthy receive each year and don’t need, and by means-testing government programs from unemployment benefits to farm subsidies.

On entitlements, put forward a plan to save Social Security and Medicare through structural reforms and by reducing benefits for well-off retirees and eliminating them entirely for the wealthiest seniors. Propose a “Buffett Rule” of your own: Warren Buffett does not need taxpayers to subsidize his retirement and health care.

STEP THREE: Pass your plans. If the president refuses to negotiate and no progress is made by February, inform him that you will attach all or part of your plan to legislation raising the debt limit and pass it in the House. Then do so. Obama will sign it.

The Thiessen idea - his alternative to my abject "surrender" - is that Republicans should demand that President Obama acquiesce on those three plans or else face national bankruptcy.

Now let's leave aside for a minute the dubious political ethics of a defeated political party threatening to wreck the public credit unless the winning party adopts the platform the voting public just rejected.

Just notice this: the three plans for whose sake Thiessen would push the United States into the worst fiscal crisis since 1861 - do not exist!

There is no Republican tax reform plan. In fact, in the last election Mitt Romney conspicuously and repeatedly refused to offer anything but the haziest outline of a tax plan. He would not specify which deductions he'd eliminate, or by how much, or for whom exactly.

There is no Republican plan to get rid of corporate welfare or taxpayer subsidies. Yes, Republicans grumble (rightly) against the Obama green-energy subsidies. But they have not got any kind of agreed definition of what counts as a give-away.

Nor is there a Republican plan for Social Security and Medicare. In 2005, the Republican majority in the House and Senate refused even to schedule a vote on President Bush's proposals for Social Security reform.

As for Medicare, the closest thing there is to a plan, other than the gesture of raising the eligibility age (which will only serve to shift 65 and 66 year olds into other government programs under the Affordable Care Act), is the Ryan plan, which goes into effect … a decade hence. It's an odd kind of emergency that is so urgent it requires immediate enactment of a remedy, on penalty of national bankruptcy, but can wait ten years for the remedy to go into effect.

If Ryan-style Medicare reform can wait until 2023, why can't Ryan-style Medicare reform wait until there's a Republican president and Congress with a mandate to enact it, rather than use extreme and almost extra-constitutional measures to force such a reform on a president and Senate with a mandate to oppose it?

The short answer is: because there is no real plan, only a high-hormone demand to do something, anything, to defy and reject the results of the 2012 election. Once again: tactical radicalism, strategic nihilism.