Mitch Daniels and the austerity trap
Yesterday there was some spirited discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter about Mitt Romney's performance at CPAC and his prospects in the 2012 presidential primary. The real debate within Republican circles was whether he'd be "deader" if he stood by RomneyCare or if he renounced it. (My own view: he should be worried about being booed at debates and in front of audiences that aren't handpicked if tries touting his health-care plan that helped popularize the individual mandate.)
The debate over Romney was mild, however, compared to the discussion over Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Unsurprisingly, talk show host and conservative idol Rush Limbaugh went after Daniels, not merely for suggesting the talk show audience was insufficient to win the presidency, but from departing from the well-rounded version of conservatism championed by Ronald Reagan. Limbaugh put it this way on his show:
What was missing I thought from the CPAC convention just as a theme is what has been occurring the last few years, this ascendancy of traditional conservatism, the ascendancy of Reagan conservatism. There's no doubt it is happening all across the fruited plain. You didn't get -- at least I didn't get any sense of it, watching CPAC. And don't misunderstand, nobody's looking here, certainly not I, for some magical appearance of a Ronald Reagan, just looking for a conservative that actually embraces conservatism. Not parts of it; not tries to redefine it. I mean clearly there's some people from the era of Reagan is over crowd. Did you ever hear Reagan say, "We got social conservatives here, we got to make sure, yeah, we'll listen to 'em but then we're not gonna pay much attention to 'em." There wasn't this kind of division within the ranks.
What is a conservative candidate? A candidate who supports the Constitution; who supports national security; who supports traditional family values, the basic stuff. And that stuff seemed controversial for parts of CPAC. When a would-be candidate says put aside the social issues, what does this mean? Is the left putting aside the social issues? The left right now, they are in federal court demanding that judges impose an agenda on the nation that was voted down at the ballot box. What do we do in response to that, ignore it? We have a health-care bill here that's unconstitutional, could have been a huge rallying point. Instead, we got the latest ruling-class drumbeat that we put aside the social issues, more important things on the agenda than the social issues right now.
Daniels has not simply emphasized one part of the conservative coalition (advocates of small government); he's gone out of his way to antagonize the others. By talking about a "truce" on social issues and making defense cuts the major feature of any discussion (in public and in meetings with conservative media) he's sending a message that he's willing to sacrifice traditional values and national security for what he considers the ultimate, perhaps only, urgent issue of our time: reestablishing fiscal discipline.
The Weekly Standard'sMatt Continetti back in October saw this syndrome as a danger to conservatives:
What might trip up the GOP? It's not that the public's demands are impossible to meet. It's that belt-tightening all too easily becomes an unhealthy obsession. Numbercrunching is a valuable skill, but it also has a tendency to crimp the political imagination. So Republicans must be careful as they trim expenses. Otherwise they'll fall into the austerity trap.
In the austerity trap, Republican congressmen get so outraged over earmarks to fund studies of the mating patterns of red-bellied newts, they neglect legislation that would foster long-term growth. Deficit anxiety causes conservative lawmakers to rule out sensible policies like a payroll tax cut. A myopic focus on government spending causes Republican leaders to short-change the defense budget and renege on America's global responsibilities. The entitlement nightmare frightens GOP candidates into framing their economic agenda in strictly negative terms.
Daniels appears to have fallen into precisely the trap that Matt described. It is a policy dead-end. ("If you want to defeat the debt without resorting to punishing inflation or punitive tax increases, growth is the only option. . . Austerity, by itself, is not enough. To the contrary: It's a trap.") But it is also a political loser in a Republican primary. Can a candidate win the GOP nomination without broad based support from value voters, hawks and fiscal conservatives? I rather doubt it.
This is not, as some claim, an argument in favor of ideological "purity." To the contrary, it is an admonition that while voters may have a priority on this or that issue, they don't want to have their interests on other matters disregarded. For example in 2008, the primary electorate learned to live with John McCain's stance on immigration reform, one that was at odds with the base. But he had to assure primary voters that in addition to his heroic efforts on national security (e.g. to prevent a defeat in Iraq), he was solid on social issues and fiscal ones as well (many sneered at his about-face on the Bush tax cuts, but he wouldn't have gotten the nomination without it).
Now, Daniels is a smart man, and he's seen many a presidential election. So, perhaps he's not all that serious about running for office, despite the stage whispers about big donors. Maybe he's just using the limelight to make a much needed push for fiscal sobriety. There's nothing alarming or unusual about that. But by the same token he likely limits his effectiveness as a messenger by antagonizing those who would be his natural allies.
His performance at CPAC and the very mixed reaction to it does serve as a warning to other candidates. Fiscal restraint may be the issue upper most in voters' minds, but primary voters are selecting a commander in chief, a party standard bearer and someone who appreciates their values. The winning candidate will need to satisfy the primary electorate to one degree or another on all counts. And they should remember: Limited government was not the end all and be all of modern conservatism. It is a means to greater ends -- freedom, prosperity and civic virtue. Politicians like Daniels who forget that do so at their own peril.
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