Putting the Beast on a Diet

by Henry Farrell on September 13, 2005

Kevin Drum “says”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_09/007112.php:

bq. The fact is, conservatives haven’t won much of anything in the last 10 years except a PR triumph. Their biggest successes have been on taxes — a Pyrrhic victory at best without corresponding spending cuts — and in the court system, which hasn’t actually delivered much real world benefit. Plus they have a war in Iraq, for whatever that’s worth. Public opinion simply hasn’t allowed them anything more.

I think that this misunderstands what has been happening these last few years. I’m reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s _Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy_ (“Powells”:http://www.powells.com/s?kw=Off%20Center%3A%20The%20Republican%20Revolution&PID=29956, “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=ur2&camp=1789&tag=henryfarrell-20&creative=9325&path=tg/detail/-/0300108702/qid=1126622313/sr=2-2/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_2?v=glance%26s=books) at the moment, and it’s very good on this topic.

bq. As is often noted, usually with a “gotcha” thrown in, the size of public spending under President Bush has _not_ fallen, even as tax revenues have plummeted. … And while Republicans are reducing the beast’s daily rations, they are asking it to do more things – from new subsidies for corporations and rich investors to new drug benefits for the aged to trillions in potential borrowing to establish private accounts for the Social Security system. Some say this means the Republican revolution never happened. The truth is more complex. Although Republicans have not starved the beast in the short run, they are putting it on a very specific diet that is transforming the role of government in American life. This special diet is not principally aimed at making government larger or smaller, at least in the short term. It is aimed at tilting the balance of benefits and protections – usually away from ordinary Americans and toward the well off, the well connected and the Republican base … Plus, the day of budgetary reckoning _will_ come. The Republican innovation has been to separate the pleasant business of cutting taxes from the unpleasant business of slashing popular social programs. But if the Republicans continue to cut taxes, or even simply maintain existing tax reductions, the unpleasantness is coming. And it will be especially painful for those who value the popular government programs likely to come under the knife.

Update: See also “Brad Plumer”:http://plumer.blogspot.com/2005_09_01_plumer_archive.html#112660240377724548.



P ONeill 09.13.05 at 8:59 am

Which raises the question of whether they can maintain their Military/Industrial — NASCAR coalition once the cutting has to start. In 2004, that just about got them 51% of the vote.


Henry 09.13.05 at 9:01 am

Hacker and Pierson say maybe yes – but I haven’t got to that part of the book yet.


Steve LaBonne 09.13.05 at 9:07 am

I suspect they wouldn’t mind losing one election cycle- so the Democrats have to do the “dirty work” of either raising taxes or cutting popular programs, thereby putting the Republicans back in power for another extended stay. I’m really afraid that’s how things may work out.


Harry B 09.13.05 at 9:46 am

Hacker and Pierson sound to me like they’ve got it exactly right. I also think that steve’s comment answers p oneill’s — losing a cycle is their best bet at holding the coalition together. They are also dependent on the Democrats continuing to elevate social issues over economic issues.


Steve LaBonne 09.13.05 at 10:00 am

Yes, if there’s one thing the Democrats are good at, it’s falling straight into traps. Sigh.


Uncle Kvetch 09.13.05 at 10:00 am

Their biggest successes have been on taxes — a Pyrrhic victory at best without corresponding spending cuts

I’d certainly be willing to accept the kind of windfall enjoyed by the folks at the tippity-top of the heap since 2001, whether “Pyrrhic” or otherwise.

Sounds like Kevin Drum is still hellbent on taking the Republicans at their word, despite overwhelming evidence that their governing “ideology” is little more than a cosmetic veneer intended to tart up a massive upward redistribution of wealth.


Ted 09.13.05 at 10:13 am

Well thank goodness we can all move to Canada or Western Europe or mainland Asia or South Africa when the rich take final control of our country.

That’ll show ’em!

They’ll only be able to lord their exalted status over the millions of new immigrants coming to this country each year.

Not us native born Americans who yearn for the security of massive social programs funded by stealing from the wealthly…

… ooops I mean TAXING the rich!


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 10:22 am

So the starve-the-beasters are not as stupid as they appear? Maybe, but I would like some evidence of that. So far all we have is the fact that they can win elections by promising tax cuts. That’s not so impressive. Voters don’t look at the arithmetic. Has anyone suggested a plausible deficit-cutting strategy? It seems to me that unless they are willing to cut military spending or default on interest payments, they have to attack social security and health spending. Is that really a viable course?


Iron Lungfish 09.13.05 at 10:34 am

Like most liberal analyses, this credits conservatives with far more intelligence than they actually deserve. There is no master plan to “starve the best” – Republicans really are stupid enough to believe their own “grow by cutting” voodoo economics. There’s no master plan or long game here; Rove isn’t a genius, Cheney isn’t a mastermind. Republicans have been believing their own propaganda for years, and really have tricked themselves into thinking that throwing billions of dollars in tax cuts to their buddies just happens to be the best solution to an economic crisis. When the economy collapses, they’ll be the only ones who’ll be genuinely shocked.


Aidan Maconachy 09.13.05 at 10:51 am

I find it instructive that the focus on the left always seems to be on “what government can/should do for us”. The attribution of nefarious motives to the Republicans conveys the impression that only well-to-do white guys in suits are out to “play” government and shaft Joe Average.

Quite aside from the fact that I think it is unwise for any citizen to fixate on government as a way to secure his/her personal security, I would argue that the Democrats are equally exploitive and machiavellian in their efforts to manipulate government for partisan ends.

A recent lynching campaign aimed at Tom DeLay fizzled out because the dominant theme had to do with rampant rumor mongering and it ground to a halt due to insuffient evidence. On the othe hand we do know with a certainty that, unlike Tom, Nancy Pelosi was fined $21,000 by the FEC for diverting $100,000 from her PAC in order to pad her leadership bid. We do know that in 2002 Harry Reid pushed a land boundry deal through in Nevada that turned out to be a bonanza for developers (a number of whom are cosy members of Harry’s extended clan). But of course since Harry is a good liberal, we are meant to believe that he did it all “for the environment”. Please!

My point in offering these examples is to point out that corruption and venal practices in office are not the sole preserve of Republicans.


Matt Weiner 09.13.05 at 11:32 am

3–In fact that’s exactly what happened with Clinton. He spent a lot of political capital to balance the budget, and as a result the GOP has taken total control of the government, looted the Treasury, and funnelled the proceeds to those making over $400,000 a year. Unfortunately, this means that Democrats, if we take power, have no incentive to balance the budget again unless it’s guaranteed that the GOP will be out of power for 20 years–it’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma where the other side has already defected.

(Silly troll–don’t you know that DeLay’s own PAC has been indicted?)


abb1 09.13.05 at 11:39 am

They are not stupid, nor they are geniuses. There’s no grand master plan or anything like that. The concept is called simply ‘crony capitalism’, you don’t need any special plan for that, all you need is to be a greedy and corrupt individual and to follow your instincts. The Democrats aren’t much better.


Thomas 09.13.05 at 11:55 am

Matt, are you under the impression that all the income of the nation is funnelled into the national Treasury for distribution, so that any reduction in taxes is simply money funnelled out of the Treasury? That isn’t actually how it works; I’d be happy to explain in greater detail, if you need it. (I think sometimes public employees are a bit confused about this point, since their income really does come from the Treasury.)

And, isn’t good policy its own reward? I mean, if balancing the budget is politically unpopular (it isn’t, but imagine if it were) but is the right thing from a public policy perspective, shouldn’t that be reason enough for pursuing it? Surely power, in and of itself, isn’t a worthy goal for those engaged in public life, and your suggestion that the loss of power is too high a price for Democrats to pay to enact proper policies unnecessarily demeans the many public-spirited Democrats who would pursue the public interest, as they saw it, regardless of the personal consequences.


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 12:02 pm

I had a look at the US Statistical Abstract and the percentages of federal spending taken by some big items are: social security: 21%, defense: 20%, interest: 7%, medicare: 12%, health: 11%, Federal pensions: 4%, veterans benefits: 3%, transportation: 3%, unemployment insurance: 2%, administration of justice 2%.

My question for those who think there is a cunning plan to change the role of government: Which of these items (making up 83% of the total) does the government quit providing? Until that question is answered I am inclined to side with the cynics who say that the only plan is to take the money and run.


Uncle Kvetch 09.13.05 at 12:22 pm

Who says the Republicans don’t care about deficit spending? When the spending in question involves assisting working people in rebuilding their shattered lives, the green visors come on! Enjoy the comedic stylings of the Newly Fiscally Responsible Three:

“We have to be there for the families and the communities, but we also have an obligation to the rest of the American people and to future generations,” says Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana). “We’re going to have to put a real sharp pencil to the budget, sharper than we have ever had to do before,” says Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Illinois). “When figures start flowing up to $200 billion, I have concerns. $1 billion is a lot of money,” says Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama).

More here.


abb1 09.13.05 at 12:48 pm

Which of these items (making up 83% of the total) does the government quit providing?

Well, to the extent there is something resembling a plan, we all know what item they would like to quit providing: social security, of course.


Matt Weiner 09.13.05 at 12:50 pm

Thomas, if the budget hadn’t been balanced then Bush wouldn’t have been able to push through his massive tax cuts for the rich. We might have had better public policy on the whole if Clinton hadn’t balanced the budget; the deficit would be no higher, but the tax burden would be no fairer. In this sense good policy was not its own reward, as it laid the grounds for later bad policy by people who do not take the public interest into account. The claim is that alternating government by people who put fiscal responsibility ahead of their own special programs and people who cater to their own special interests at the expense of the public good actually hurts the public good more than if the party of good will did not try to attain fiscal responsibility.

Creating massive budget deficits by cutting taxes for the very richest Americans is what I mean by looting the Treasury–the result has been a loss of money to the Treasury and a gain for the richest Americans. Incidentally, you seem to be sadly misinformed about where public employees get their money. I, for instance, am a public employee, and I am not paid out of the national Treasury but out (indirectly) of the Texas State Treasury. Don’t you think you should go in for remedial education before you comment again?


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 12:58 pm

abb1, they could quit providing social security but then they would probably have to quit collecting the contributions. It may be ideologically satisfying, but it does nothing for the deficit.


Slocum 09.13.05 at 1:06 pm

In fact that’s exactly what happened with Clinton. He spent a lot of political capital to balance the budget, and as a result the GOP has taken total control of the government

The Democrats didn’t lose because Clinton had to cause a lot of pain to balance the budget. There was no pain. The budget surplus, fueled by the dotcom boom, was something of a pleasant surprise.

The Democrats lost because Gore didn’t run promising to continue the Clinton admin policies but veered off on a ranting, populist ‘fight the power’ tangent. Al, WTF? You’ve been VP for 8 years. You guys ARE the power. Dimwit.

And with Dean, MoveOn and the Kos kids pushing hard to take the party farther left, I’m not going to put it past the Dems to lose again in ’08 regardless of how badly Bush screws up between now and then.


Matt Weiner 09.13.05 at 1:32 pm

slocum, I agree that Gore ran a bad campaign in failing to tie himself to Clinton, though I’m not sure that “fight the power” was the worst part of it; simply failing to have Clinton personally campaign for him was the worst part of it. (I vaguely recall that it wasn’t until “fight the power” that Gore pulled even in the polls.)

But what I was really thinking of was the loss of Congress in ’94. That, I think, had something to do with Republican attacks on Clinton’s tax increases, which were passed without a single GOP vote. The budget wasn’t balanced yet, but Clinton spent all his political capital taking the steps that led to the balanced budget.


abb1 09.13.05 at 1:44 pm

Kevin, don’t forget: they’re trying to swindle about $2 trillion out of the trust fund now. And if they wait a decade and then snatch it, then it’ll be $4 trillion, IIRC. A trillion here, trillion there, you know how it is…


Thomas 09.13.05 at 2:11 pm

Matt, all sorts of fiscal policy choices can result in less money for the Treasury. For example, deficit spending might, over time, diminish national economic performance, resulting in lower tax receipts. Similarly, very high levels of taxation might, over time, result in diminished national economoc performance. Where would the “proceeds” be in those cases? Where is the “gain”?

If I understand your point on the public policy as its own reward question (to the extent you have one other than calling names), it is that you disagree with many Democrats (such as President Clinton) on the relative priority of fiscal responsibility as a goal of public policy. (That would explain your preference for satisfying Democratic goals on tax distribution before worrying about putatively Democratic goals like balancing the budget.) That’s fine, and I’ll let you and the DLC argue it out. It isn’t surprising that people (particularly people acting in a political coalition) have diverse goals, and that some may be more popular or more important than others. Figuring out which to pursue is a matter of balance. But surely if someone thought that fiscal responsibility was the most important, or one of the most important, public policy issues, they’d be being acting without integrity if they pursued other, lesser goals so they’d remain in office. More generally–and this may well be the DLC response–it may be hard for Democrats to re-gain power if they admit that they have no incentive to, and thus no intention to, be fiscally responsible.


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 3:58 pm

abb1, no doubt the spinmeisters will continue the smoke-and-mirrors stuff with the trust fund. But I repeat, it does nothing for the deficit. It fools the innumerates and especially the journalists. That’s all. Eventually, maybe just a few years from now, Chinese and other buyers of Treasury paper will grow nervous about their holdings. At that point the choices for the US are: (1) continue to borrow at progressively higher interest rates; (2) raise taxes; or (3) cut spending on things like defence, Medicare etc. According to the Cunning Plan Theory, Washington will then get down to “the unpleasant business of slashing popular social programs”, thereby “transforming the role of government in American life.”

But what programs do they plan to cut? I will give some credence to the CPT when I have a plausible answer to that question. Meanwhile my guess is that the plan is somewhat like the plan they had for post-Saddam Iraq, and somewhat like the plan they had for a major natural disaster. Busk it. Or in Rumsfeld’s words: “I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it.”


Jack 09.13.05 at 4:02 pm

Thomas, your point was made the first time you made it. You on the other hand seem to have ignored the issue entirely. The point is that they may find it hard to be reelected if they don’t admit that they do indeed have no incentive to be fiscally responsible.

The problem with you conservatives is that you don’t take incentives seriously.

Personally I think that the Democrats should remove their cuffs and go wild with the credit card themselves. They might find something better to do with it than build bridges to nowhere or give Bill Gates a tax break and its going to be run up to the limit whatever they do.


Sebastian Holsclaw 09.13.05 at 4:58 pm

“Personally I think that the Democrats should remove their cuffs and go wild with the credit card themselves.”

That worked so well in the 1970s.


Kevin Donoghue 09.13.05 at 5:17 pm

That worked so well in the 1970s.

Doesn’t that reinforce Jack’s point about perverse incentives? A better fiscal inheritance would have been a present to Reagan. He might even have been able to make his tax-cuts stick, instead of being forced to reverse them in his second term.


Brett Bellmore 09.13.05 at 5:18 pm

Oh, come on now, real conservatives are perfectly aware that “starve the beast” is just a rationalization designed to convince the party’s base to ignore what their “lying eyes” are telling them about (the lack of) Republican fiscal restraint.

The conservatives who really wanted fiscal discipline lost control of the party back when Gingrich’s budget standoff was lost. The people now in control figure that until the electorate genuinely WANTS fiscal rectitude, any party that tries to deliver it will end up out of power, and thus unable to dictate policy conderning ANYTHING, fiscal or otherwise.

I can’t say I’m happy with this, but it might be a realistic view of things. In which case the nation is doomed.


Ted 09.13.05 at 6:53 pm

How about we trade the 20% for National Defense
for the 21% for Social Security?

See how easy it is to cut 41% of the budget.

Both the Far Lefties and Far Righties get
something. And I get to keep my tax cut.

EVERYONE should be happy.


bob mcmanus 09.13.05 at 9:26 pm

Long time no see, BB

27. Brett Bellmore is correct.

The interesting question is what happens after the worse-than-1929 crash-and-burn. FDR had at least possibilities in the South than a future liberal will not.

Aside from nukes to keep them safe, Mississippi might not mind having the entirety of the Federal Gov’t disappear and return to 1845.


MQ 09.13.05 at 11:16 pm

The arguments of some of the conservative trolls who pop up here (not you Brett, good point) provide a thousand little demonstrations that the Republicans do indeed swallow their own kool-aid on tax cuts. One wonders why they don’t eliminate taxation and fund the entire budget through debt.

In general what we are learning is that politics tends to be about constituency groups rather than principles, and constituency groups are not too likely to pass up the juicy prizes available from total control of the Federal government in the name of principle. Rather a Marxist lesson, as the ideological trappings are shed as soon as they are no longer needed to cover up the material interests involved.

I think the evidence is that there is plenty of room to increase taxes on the rich without negative economic consequences. Not enough to eliminate future deficits entirely but enough to make them quite manageable. The question is whether the political system is so locked down by big money that these options are not feasible politically.

The answer to what Democrats should do is that they should prioritize the economic interests of the genuine middle class, including future generations of that middle class, over the worship of the wealthy that is the central right-wing creed. Part of that involves more fiscal responsibility and a better run government than we have seen up till now. But it doesn’t mean worship of balanced budgets as an end in themselves.


Jack 09.14.05 at 1:11 am

I agree with Brett.

Should the budget be balanced if that is not what the electorate wants? If not balancing the budget goes horribly wrong they will change their minds about it and get it right next time. Like Germany and inflation perhaps. Democracy is in part the right of a nation to make its own mistakes.

I’m surprised that there is not more biblical argument in favour of balancing budgets. Seven fat years and all that. Living beyond your means doesn’t seem like a natural bible belt thing.

Ted, are you the CT member trying to provoke a debate? Compromising by neither having your cake nor eating it isn’t going to please either the have party or the eat party so its not going to happen. The question is really if you are going to have both, do you REALLY want your tax cut as well?


abb1 09.14.05 at 4:12 am

Kevin, I totally agree with everything you said; however, when the times does come to jump off that bridge or cut spending, we do know what they would prefer to cut. It is quite likely that at that point (years from now) a significant portion of the federal income tax receipts will be going into social security benefits (or will be expected to go there soon) via the trust fund mechanism and, before jumping off the bridge, they’ll certainly try to cut the social security benefits – all I’m sayin’.


Antti Nannimus 09.14.05 at 6:43 pm


Deficit financing (“stealing from future generations”) was long anathema to traditional Barry Goldwater-style conservatives, and also to most other Republicans, including the so-called Nelson Rockefeller-style “moderate” Republicans who were actually social liberals in most respects. For years, that Republican principle was one of the most defining under which they united. They effectively used it to attack the “borrow and spend” liberals for decades. What the hell ever happened to that phrase? There has been an astonishing reversal of this Republican principle, virtually unnoticed by the public, unexplainably unnoticed by the press, or mostly unmentioned even by the Democratic Party, because the Democrats are also implicated in the larceny.

The “neo-cons”, who now control the Republican Party with an iron fist, are an entirely different ilk of Republicans. They are much more radical and cynical in their tactics. Deficit financing to them is a desirable, and an almost certain way, to finally kill ALL liberal safety-net social programs that they abhor, including Social Security. When they have successfully bankrupted the U.S. federal government, they hope and believe there will be no choice but to go back to the days when the major roles of the federal government were limited to national defense and foreign relations. When that bankruptcy happens, only the poor will suffer because the neo-cons have meanwhile taken care to see their rich constituents, who don’t need government social services, have gotten continuously richer. Perhaps they hope (although not likely) that federal bankruptcy will happen during a brief period of Democratic Party political dominance, but they probably have decided don’t even really care about that. They will predictably blame the Democrats for the bankruptcy regardless of whose watch it happens on. They will deny any responsibility for it. They will simply forget about the Bush deficits, and the American public won’t notice. They know Americans are, on average both mean and stupid, and their genius is that they discovered how to capitalize on those frailties at every turn.

Even if there is no actual declared federal bankruptcy, the neocons know the problem can always be solved in the traditional manner. Simply run the printing presses to create worthless inflated money, and give that to the poor until they choke on it.

Now you too know the plan.

Have a nice day,


Matt Weiner 09.14.05 at 6:46 pm

(to the extent you have one other than calling names)

Good Lord, this is rich. You offered an extraordinarily uncharitable and insulting reading of something I said, and sneered at me as a “public employee.” I repaid you in kind, offering an extraordinarily uncharitable reading of something you said. Now it seems your feelings are hurt, but if you look closely I did not call you any name but “Thomas.” Apparently you don’t like the taste of your own medicine.

As for the point of fiscal responsibility, I’ll explain again. I favor fiscal responsibility. However, since the Republicans have demonstrated that they will be as fiscally irresponsible as they can, it may not promote the goal of fiscal responsibility for Democrats to pass policies that will reduce the deficit; since when Republicans take power again (as is inevitable) they will simply increase the deficit again.

So the long-term fiscal responsibility might be better served by Democrats aiming for substantial but not overwhelming deficits–maybe $150 billion or so–so that Republicans will be unable to promote new tax cuts as a way to spend a surplus. And in any case, if there is no way to attain fiscal responsibility, we may as well aim for the best of all fiscally irresponsible outcomes.

The idea that the Democrats will be hurt if they don’t maintain fiscal responsibility seems odd. Is it that fiscal responsibility is the only advantage they have over Republicans? Certainly the GOP seems to be doing well while being insanely profligate.


Brett Bellmore 09.15.05 at 5:52 am

“And in any case, if there is no way to attain fiscal responsibility, we may as well aim for the best of all fiscally irresponsible outcomes.”

EXACTLY the reasoning of the Republicans, save only that they disagree with Democrats about what constitutes “best”. (But are pretty darned sure that Republicans running things is a key element of it.)


Uncle Kvetch 09.15.05 at 10:58 am

Before this thread completely fizzles, it might be appropriate to let the Bugman have the last word:

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday that Republicans have done so well in cutting spending that he declared an “ongoing victory,” and said there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget . . . Asked if that meant the government was running at peak efficiency, Mr. DeLay said, “Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared it down pretty good.”

Not a dime’s worth of difference between them and the Dems, right, Brett?


Uncle Kvetch 09.15.05 at 11:00 am

Oh, and I’ve just got to say how much I love “ongoing victory”–is this the Right’s version of “permanent revolution”?

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