Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Republicans on Empty

About a half hour into the fourth presidential debate, I realized I was experiencing a new sensation: boredom. There was nothing new. The central allure of this batch of candidates was their outrageousness. Untethered from the strictures of truth, they have been free to offer wondrous and amazing promises: 4% annual growth (Bush), no, six! (Huckabee); a wall across the southern border (Trump), and the northern one, too! (Walker); flat taxes in the form of a tithe (Carson) and plenty of "dynamically scored*" budgets (everyone); a three-page tax code (Fiorina); no abortions for anyone, under any circumstances (most of them); cooperation from Putin (Trump) and the submission of our foes (everybody); and perhaps most improbably of all, cross-party harmony (Cruz, of all people, suggested that one).

None of these futures exist in a world governed by physics--or other humans--but no matter, it was great theater. Problem is, once you offer people the world in the first debate, what do you offer in the second--or fourth? Last night, the candidates continued to push around their old talking points but we, the ravenous mob they'd whipped up, wanted more. There is no more. There's no more left to promise.

Now the whole operation has become a defensive crouch, in which the candidates attempt to smile their way through defenses of these preposterous claims by force of will alone. One example: the moderator pointed out that job growth under Clinton and Obama way outpaced growth under the Bushes and asked Fiorina about it. She began her remarks, “Yes, problems have gotten much worse under Democrats” before robotically ticking off her own talking points.

There was one interesting undercurrent that heartened my lefty heart. Throughout the debate, the candidates continued to lapse into liberal complaints. This is a politician's natural response to voter discontent, but it is unfamiliar terrain for republicans. Last night we heard Rubio speak favorably about the importance of child care to working families, Cruz get populist about jobs (albeit in the context of assaulting undocumented workers), Carson complain about the power of big banks, Kasich talk about the greed of Wall Street, and a number of candidates reframe their (extremely regressive) tax plans in terms of "fairness." Their solutions are bizarre--because, after all, GOP policies were never designed to address these issues--but even addressing them at all shows reality is seeping into their thoughts.

All of this represents a subconscious recognition of the real issues in America--and that's not good for Republicans. Because, once they exit this reality-free bubble they've built for themselves, they're going to have to face real voters and real issues. And that could be tough.

(Horse race note: no movement. They have fallen into mostly static positions, and last night didn't shake anything up.)

*Dynamic scoring. When Republicans draft budgets with gigantic tax cuts (which is to say, when Republicans draft budgets), the math works against them. Enormous tax cuts mean revenues plummet and the budget deficit soars. To elide this reality, Republicans have come up with the idea that, owing to the effect of the tax cuts, the economy will become supercharged and grow improbably fast as a result. They want that improbable growth factored into the calculation and, sure enough, if you assume four or six percent annual growth, the deficit disappears! In actual practice, this effect has never been observed. (cf Bush tax cuts; Kansas.)

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