Nine months after a decisive loss in the 2012 elections, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party—or whatever’s left of it—has begun.
I’m not talking about a battle between moderates and conservatives. The conservatives won that fight a long time ago. Our children may never believe that moderate Republicans once roamed the Earth, advocating policies that would limit carbon pollution and invest in scientific research, reform our schools and build new roads, promote national service, reduce the influence of money in politics, and require individuals who can afford health insurance to take responsibility for buying it. Soon enough, these politicians will exist only in the minds of ’90s-era pundits and Aaron Sorkin’s writing staff.
The conservatives have finally purified the Republican Party, dispatching moderate infidels in primary after primary, demanding fealty to their agenda of huge tax cuts and drastically lower spending. They have used their sizable numbers in Congress to help realize that agenda, with periodic assists from a president who has always been more fiscally responsible than his enemies would admit.
Today the tax burden on the vast majority of families is lower than it’s been in decades. Domestic spending outside of Medicare and Medicaid is the lowest it’s been in more than half a century. A public sector that has grown under the last four presidents has significantly contracted under Barack Obama. And deficits are falling at the fastest pace in 60 years.
Conservatives remain unsatisfied. They want more tax cuts. More spending cuts. And I’m picking up signals that they’re not entirely thrilled with the Affordable Care Act.
But here, a new divide has emerged within the Republican Party. On one side are the traditional small-government conservatives, who have a rough acquaintance with the rules of politics and basic math. They may want to reduce the size of government further, but they also want to preserve the institutions of government, understanding that a functional democracy is necessary to provide for the common defense, promote a common prosperity, and tackle problems we can only solve together, as a nation.
These are Republicans like Chris Christie, who has witnessed the vital importance of robust federal aid in the wake of a terrible storm. These are Republicans like Jeb Bush, who has tried to reform public education without completely dismantling it. These are Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the handful of senators who have sought compromise with Democrats over issues such as immigration reform and finally ended the historically exceptional blockade of perfectly qualified executive-branch nominees so that the president can fill the jobs his administration is required to perform.
None of these actions have endeared the small-government conservatives to their rivals for power, the no-government conservatives. No-government conservatives take their inspiration from Grover Norquist’s famous quote that government should be shrunk to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub. These Republicans, who make up most of the House and a healthy portion of the Senate, are on an uncompromising mission to abolish most government services, benefits, regulations, and taxes.
The goals of no-government conservatives are not primarily economic. They will propose more tax cuts in times of surplus and times of deficit. They care little when the nonpartisan experts and economists at the Congressional Budget Office say sequestration will cost up to 1.6 million jobs next year, or that immigration reform will boost our GDP, or that Obamacare will reduce the debt over time. No-government conservatives are not compelled by the evidence that temporary benefits such as food stamps and unemployment insurance put money in the pockets of those most likely to spend it at local businesses that will grow and create jobs as a result. Their only jobs agenda, their only growth agenda, their only deficit agenda is eliminating government, no matter how many people it helps or how big a boost it provides the economy.
Nor are the goals of no-government conservatives primarily political. They have advisers, they can read polls, and most of them probably know that shutting down the government or forcing a default would be, among other catastrophes, highly unpopular. They realize that rampant hostage-taking and filibuster-abuse are the chief contributors to the obstruction and gridlock that Americans of both parties hate.
They just don’t care. Jonathan Chait has written about the recent embrace of “procedural extremism” among many congressional Republicans, who have “evolved from being politically shrewd proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all.”
But for no-government conservatives, this has been their primary policy goal all along. Their fundamental philosophy is purely ideological—the idea that since government can’t do everything, it should do nothing. So as long as the public continues to see Washington as a dysfunctional circus of petty children, the conservative philosophy of government is vindicated. That is also precisely why no-government conservatives view the successful implementation of Obamacare as an existential threat—because it would prove that limited government intervention in the market can still be an effective force for good. It is why some Republicans are threatening a shutdown unless Obama agrees to defund the Affordable Care Act—a step they know can’t even be achieved through the annual budget process.
In 2016, Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz seem to be the most likely champions of no-government conservatism, with Marco Rubio engaged in a delicate balancing act between purity and sanity. Whether Republican activists will still embrace traditional conservatives like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and others remains to be seen. But of one thing I am certain: while the single-minded pursuit of a no-government ideology may bring Republicans a fanatical sense of purpose, it will not bring them the 270 electoral votes needed to take back the White House, nor will it help our recovery gain the speed and strength it needs. The sooner the party faithful realize this, the better off the country will be.