Yes, certain trends may favor Democrats. But there’s no denying how dramatically conservatives have shifted the national debate. A response to Larry M. Bartels.
In this case, Bartels is wrong. When in power, Republicans have demonstrated a strong tendency to overreach, before, during, and after the 1995-98 Gingrich era. Take the following few examples from over the years. First, Iran-Contra: The Reagan Administration secretly and illegally sold arms to the terrorist government of Iran, disregarding an international arms embargo in order to secretly and illegally finance the anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua, despite passage of legislation prohibiting support of the insurgency. Second, George W. Bush’s purposeful distortion of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, at a cost exceeding $2 trillion, the loss of around 4,500 American lives, and more than 33,000 Americans wounded. Third, House passage two years in a row of the Paul Ryan budget—legislation that, if enacted, would fulfill Grover Norquist’s dream of shrinking government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Iran-Contra severely undermined the legitimacy of the Reagan presidency. The 2005 setbacks in Iraq were a driving force in the collapse of Bush’s popularity. In the only test to date, the Ryan budget cost the GOP a House seat in a May 2011 special election, and we will see whether the decisive majorities of Republican members of the House and Senate who voted in favor of the legislation will pay a price this November.
Third, Bartels asserts that I cast aside Occam’s Razor and dwell on complicated explanations for conservative advantage when a simple one would suffice: “Edsall’s…account overlooks a much simpler and more powerful factor in the 2010 election outcome: Electoral support for the president’s party routinely rises and falls with the state of the economy.”
In fact, when the ideological leanings of the 2010 electorate are compared to the four previous off-year congressional elections (1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006), there are some striking differences. These four elections include two, 1994 and 2006, that marked major shifts similar in scope to those of 2010, to the right in 1994, and to the left in 2006. Despite this volatility, the balance of self-identified conservatives, moderates, and liberals remained relatively constant during those four elections: The percentage of voters identifying themselves as conservative ranged from 40 to 46 percent, averaging 42.5 percent. In 2010, in contrast, the electorate became decisively more conservative. Their ranks shot up to 54 percent, a major shift in American politics. Self-described moderates had averaged 40.5 percent; in 2010, their share collapsed to 27 percent, a 13.5-point drop. There is no question that the economy was a major factor in 2010, but the electorate could have turned against the Democrats without changing its ideological stripes; the shift from center to the right points to an ideological upheaval driven by anger over Obamacare, the stimulus, and the sharp rise in the deficit.
Fourth, Bartels argues that Republicans won’t cut domestic budgets too deeply because doing so would harm their own core constituents even more than it would harm Democrats’: “The political challenge facing budget-cutting Republicans is exacerbated by the fact that beneficiaries of government spending are disproportionately concentrated in red states. Federal expenditures made up almost 30 percent of total personal income in the 22 states that voted for John McCain, a significantly higher dependency level than in the states that voted for Barack Obama.”
Here, Bartels does not go deep enough. In many of the red states Bartels refers to, the beneficiaries of federal programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Republicans from those states are not supporters of government aid to those constituencies, just as the white Democratic officeholders of the South during the New Deal era not only disregarded the interests of their black constituencies, but, in the case of minimum wage law, pointedly kept black domestic and farm workers out of reach of the law. White elected officials in the South, Democratic earlier and now Republican, have opposed more often than supported the transfer of federal dollars to their minority—and overwhelmingly Democratic—constituents.
Finally, Bartels seems to believe that Mitt Romney’s impending nomination is proof that the 2012 election does not represent unprecedented ideological warfare: “If the party that was not so long ago confidently building Red America is now readying itself to accept Romney as its best hope for victory, that sounds a lot like politics as usual.”
The nomination of Romney is not politics as usual. First, Romney has been forced to tack hard right to win the nomination, and the weakness of the establishment center is reflected in the ability of two highly marginal candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to win 13 primaries and caucuses. Second, the 2012 election is unlikely to resolve the larger debate. It is simply a matter of odds that Republicans will not sweep the board to win the presidency and both branches of Congress. The conservative wing of the Republican Party, however, sees the 2012 election as a make-or-break event for the increasingly beleaguered, decisively white coalition that has underpinned the right from 1966 forward. Despite pressures from the party’s consultants and strategists to moderate anti-immigrant stands, the party’s elected officials are taking a long-shot gamble on winning control of the executive and legislative branches with a shrinking coalition because such a win in 2012 would empower the party to enact, in 2013, a major retrenchment of the liberal welfare state, capitalizing on the no-filibuster rule controlling Senate debate over budget reconciliation legislation.
In sum, Bartels’s criticism of The Age of Austerity is constrained by his dependence on a micro-level analysis that neither goes deep enough nor wide enough to see larger trends, the scope of Republican ambition, and the significance of the past four decades of conservative domination of the agenda, even at times when Democrats held power.
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