Apparently Limbaugh took aim at Ross and Reihan’s book yesterday, mostly complaining about Brooks’ references to their acknowledgement of conservative aspects of the New Deal. While constitutionally the New Deal was nothing but usurpation and what Garet Garrett called “revolution within the form,” institutionally it built the foundations of the postwar managerial state that conservatives find objectionable in so many other ways and economically it was an unmitigated failure on its own terms, there were some supporters of the New Deal who viewed it as a conservative program and certainly some of its major programs were framed and justified with the language of social conservatism. It is not clear to me why conservatives should want to associate themselves with such a lousy program, but then that is one of my basic disagreements with Ross and Reihan.
Even so, the New Deal occupies a very small place in Grand New Party, but more to the point there is nothing in Ross and Reihan’s accommodation with the New Deal legacy that is in any significant way different from that of Newt Gingrich c. 1995, most neoconservatives since the 1970s or, for that matter, Rush Limbaugh. So far as I know, Reagan never seriously entertained the prospect of dismantling the New Deal, and the one moment when he had the chance to let the Social Security system expire he made a point of keeping it afloat with tax increases. If Limbaugh has been actively calling for the elimination of Social Security or the repeal of the Wagner Act, it has escaped my attention. Indeed, from what Limbaugh has in his transcript you get the distinct impression that “New Deal” is just a phrase to him that has no particular meaning:
David Brooks is illustrative of what has gotten the party where it is today. He doesn’t realize the Republicans have been taking the lead on this agenda. Why did they lose ’06? It wasn’t corruption. They were spending like drunken sailors, and they got caught up in the perks of power. The government is as bloated as it can be. The Republicans didn’t put the brakes on it whatsoever [bold mine-DL]. The Republicans are doing earmarks just like the Democrats did, and Republican conservative voters — limited government, limited government, smaller government, get it out of our way — is the coin of the realm, and so what Mr. Brooks doesn’t realize is, this is exactly where the Republican Party has been headed for seven or eight years now, and he’s only noticing it now and commenting on it as though it represents our future.
Now, if the Republican Party has been doing this… They haven’t embraced the New Deal, but they may as well have been funding it, along with the Democrats, and if it was going to be our salvation, then how come everybody thinks we’re going to get shellacked in November? [bold mine-DL] We’ve been doing what these two guys in their book and what Brooks is promoting in their book. We’ve been doing it for seven years! We’ve been growing government. We’ve been trying to use government to interact with people’s lives, “a powerful and engaged executive,” and we have been trying to say, “We’re not mean, and we’re not cruel, and we love you,” and we’ve been trying to give people as much of what government —
We even created our own entitlement, for crying out loud! The Republicans came up with a new entitlement! Can you believe it? The New Deal? We’re close. We should be in the stratosphere. The Democrats ought to be able to barely muster 25 to 30% of the vote if these guys are right! They’re not right.
Obviously, no one should trust electoral analysis from someone who cannot bring himself to mention the war in Iraq as a factor and who pretends that corruption had no effect on the GOP in 2006. The dreaded earmark makes its obligatory appearance, of course, and in its way the earmark is representative of the ruin of the GOP, but not in the way that the earmark moralists would have it. The fixation on the utterly insiderish, minor issue of earmarks as the source of Republican woes represents perfectly just how oblivious and incapable of real self-criticism the Republican Party has become.
As political commentary, Limbaugh’s argument is not much better, since it’s clear that for Limbaugh the phrase “New Deal” is just code for new entitlements or increased discretionary spending rather than a specific reference to Roosevelt’s domestic politics in the 1930s. Now I have argued in a recent column that I think the meliorist impulse is at the root of the war in Iraq, and obviously it requires the prior acceptance of meliorist assumptions about the efficacy of government action to embrace the administration’s fantasies about nation-building or exporting democracy to Iraq, so I trust everyone will understand that I am not saying this out of any desire to defend a meliorist program. I generally think meliorism is unwise, and I regard the entire “compassionate conservative” project as a colossal blunder as a matter of policy. Serving the interests of working- and middle-class constituencies is highly desirable, but I am not persuaded that right-wing meliorism actually serves those interests, even though it may win votes. So I think it is extremely difficult to show (besides generic size-of-government questions that hide strong resistance to cutting specific programs) that the electorate punishes parties that create entitlements and expand the size of government. Or, to be more precise, the electorate does not punish those parties because they have created entitlements and expanded the size of government. As with the Republicans in 1974 and 1976, the government-expanding party was repudiated in 2006, but this was because of things distinct from domestic policy initiatives.
The political goal of Ross and Reihan’s project, from what I have been able to gather so far, is to create the foundation for an enduring Republican coalition that includes working-class voters essentially as a stable successor to the New Deal coalition. Besides the fact that I don’t think Ross and Reihan are interested in repudiating the New Deal, which is the sort of thing that Ron Paul supporters such as myself would advocate and would be deemed by most Republicans as “crazy” and “radical,” it does not make a great deal of sense politically to start off a book on a working-class agenda with an attack on programs and laws that working-class voters have traditionally supported.