In 2001, the GOP’s budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, was excited for the opportunity to vote for Bush’s “temporary” tax cuts. “I think we ought to have this income tax cut fast … to make sure we get a good punch into the economy, juice the economy to make sure that we can avoid a hard landing,” he said at a committee hearing. “The economy has soured,” he continued. “And it is my concern that if we keep waiting and seeing we won’t give the economy the boost it needs right now.”
Fast forward 10 years, to this August. President Obama was poised to call for an extension of a payroll tax break — and an additional break for businesses — and Ryan began singing a very different tune. “Those things are all temporary,” he told Fox News. “They are demand-sided. And they are proven not to work and they still facilitate uncertainty for businesses.” Suddenly, tax cuts — the GOP’s answer to every economic issue of the past four decades — were “proven not to work.”
“What’s plaguing our economy today,” he said, is “the amount of uncertainty as to what the future holds for them on regulations, on taxes, on interest rates and all of those things.” He said that the temporary nature of the cuts “exactly exacerbates those problems.”
Obama had made a point of the fact that the proposals contained in his jobs package had all been embraced by Republicans in the past, but that didn’t prevent them from bashing it, just as they had decried many other erstwhile conservative ideas as so much misguided “socialism” when proposed by Democrats.
Before the memory-hole swallows them up, consider nine other ideas that Republicans had long championed, and were then picked up by Democrats and became toxic within the GOP caucus. They tell us not only how serious Republicans are about undermining the administration, but also how far both parties have lurched to the right — the Democrats are offering inherently conservative proposals to deal with the problems we face, and today’s Right considers those policies to be way out in left field.
1. The Health-Care Mandate
Late last year, when a federal judge ruled against the mandate (two other courts disagreed, and the Supreme Court will end up deciding the question), Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, rejoiced. “Today is a great day for liberty,” he said. “Congress must obey the Constitution rather than make it up as we go along.” It was an odd testament to freedom, given that Hatch himself co-sponsored a health-care reform bill built around an individual mandate in the late 1990s.
Journalist Steve Benen noted that while “the record here may be inconvenient for the right … it’s also unambiguous: the mandate Republicans currently hate was their idea.”
It was championed by the Heritage Foundation … Nixon embraced it in the 1970s, and George H.W. Bush kept it going in the 1980s. For years, it was touted by the likes of John McCain, Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, Chuck Grassley, Bob Bennett, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, John Thune, Judd Gregg, and many other … notable GOP officials.
According to NPR, the mandate was the Right’s response to progressive proposals to establish a single-payer system. Mark Pauly, the conservative economist widely credited with the idea, explained that “a group of economists and health policy people, market-oriented, sat down and said, ‘Let’s see if we can come up with a health reform proposal that would preserve a role for markets but would also achieve universal coverage.'”
2. Cap and Trade
A central tenet of traditionally conservative economic thinking is that you tax activities you want to deter as an alternative to regulating them out of existence. This was the thinking behind “cap and trade” policies to control pollution — it was the “free market” approach.
The ideas had been floating around for some time in broad terms, but it was the Reagan White House that developed the first proposals for a cap and trade program. It gained momentum during the first Bush administration when,according to a history of the concept in Smithsonian Magazine, George H. W. Bush decided that “cap-and-trade still beats command-and-control regulation.” Cap and trade is decidedly business-friendly, as Smithsonian noted:
The cap-and-trade system continues to let polluters figure out the least expensive way to reduce their acid rain emissions. As a result, the law costs utilities just $3 billion annually, not $25 billion, according to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Management; by cutting acid rain in half, it also generates an estimated $122 billion a year in benefits from avoided death and illness, healthier lakes and forests, and improved visibility on the Eastern Seaboard.
Today, some 20 years later, this signature, market-based, business-friendly alternative to “Big Government” regulations is just another “job-killing tax” according to a significant majority of Republicans.
The “Pledge to America: the 2010 Republican Agenda” promised to “oppose attempts to impose a national ‘cap and trade’ energy tax.”
3. Small Business Tax Credits
Perhaps the most blatant flip-flop on policy was Republicans’ sudden concerns that a bill that would have provided $30 billion to encourage banks to lend to small businesses and another $12 billion in tax credits targeted directly at them was a form of “government overreach.” But last July, Reuters reported that “some Republicans have cast the small-business proposal as part of what they consider government overreach by the Obama administration.” They ended up blocking passage of the proposal because they were angry that “Democrats shut them out from amending the package.”
4. Infrastructure Bank
In the not-at-all-distant past, this was another idea for a market-based, “public-private” partnership that virtually everyone could get behind. “A national infrastructure bank is a great place to start securing the funding we need to increase our mobility, create jobs and enhance our global competitiveness,” said Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue — not known as a socialist — last year. “With a modest initial investment of $10 billion, a national infrastructure bank could leverage up to $600 billion in private investments to repair, modernize and expand our ailing infrastructure system.”
Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a conservative senator from Texas, and senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, among the most conservative members of Congress, have each co-sponsored legislation to set up an infrastructure bank in just the past two years. A recent study found that 85 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of self-identified conservatives and 80 percent of Tea Party fans favored more public-private partnerships to tackle the nation’s problems, and two-thirds of voters “say that making improvements in infrastructure is very important.”
But now that it’s a centerpiece of Obama’s jobs plan, conservatives have come to view an infrastructure bank as, in the words of the Heritage Foundation, “one idea that…progressives have been flogging for the past few years… [that] would do little to spur the economic recovery—and nothing to create new jobs.”
5. Supplier-Side Cuts to Medicare
For two years, the GOP has made a big issue of $500 billion in “Medicare cuts” contained in the Dems’ health-care reform bill — a claim that is “misleading” at best. The cuts come from reforms in the way Medicare providers are compensated, not out of beneficiaries’ hides.
The GOP-controlled House then passed a budget along party lines with those very same cuts, but they nonetheless continue to blast them. During a recent GOP presidential debate, Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, said that seniors “know in Obamacare the president of the United States took away $500 billion — a half-trillion dollars — out of Medicare, shifted it to Obamacare to pay for younger people.”
But as Jill Lawrence noted, the rhetoric represents “a dizzying role reversal from the days when Republicans used to recommend the same types of reductions in future Medicare spending.”
In 1995, for instance, Republicans proposed cutting $270 billion over seven years. In 1997, McConnell and McCain were among the Republicans voting for a Balanced Budget Act that cut Medicare by $115 billion over five years. And in his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain proposed combined Medicare and Medicaid cuts of $1.3 trillion over 10 years.
Lawrence notes that McCain later, “led the fight against the Democrats’ plans to trim Medicare.”
6. Financial Disclosure Laws
Lawrence also noted that “prominent Republicans have often made the case that transparency — not limits on campaign spending or contributions — is the best antidote to corruption.”
“Republicans are in favor of disclosure,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2000. Seven years later, on the same program, House GOP leader John Boehner declared: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
But, she adds, those same Republicans voted against the DISCLOSE Act last year. According to the current GOP line, requiring companies to disclose their contributions “is a punitive measure for associations of persons who choose to exercise their right to free political speech as guaranteed by the Constitution, and affirmed in the Citizens United v. FEC case.”
7. Encouraging Low-income Home Ownership
As I noted last year, perhaps the most pernicious right-wing lie of late is that the Wall Street hustlers who came close to bringing the global economy to its knees in 2008 were just innocent victims of government-sponsored programs that forced them to lower lending standards in a misguided effort to increase home ownership among the poor (read: dark-skinned).
It’s an alluring story line for those who are ideologically predisposed to blame “inner city” people instead of MBAs in suits roaming the executive suite. It’s also patent nonsense—a Big Lie that has nonetheless become an object of almost religious belief for some on the Right.
But it’s not just that the story isn’t in any way grounded in objective reality. What makes it even more disgraceful is that conservatives have long argued that efforts to increase home ownership among low-income families and communities of color was the “free market” thing to do (and have, to some degree, negated the need for a decent social safety net). It was George W. Bush, not Vladimir Lenin, who said in a 2002 speech, “We have a problem here in America…a homeownership gap,” and added, “We’ve got to work together to close [the gap] for the good of our country.”
The New York Times reported, “From his earliest days in office, Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own homes with his conviction that markets do best when left alone.”
Bush pushed hard to expand home ownership, especially among minority groups, an initiative that dovetailed with both his ambition to expand Republican appeal and the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.
This stuff was standard American Enterprise Institute-quality conservative fare until it became a handy way of diverting blame away from the titans of Wall Street. Then it became the root cause of the Great Recession.
8. The Fairness Doctrine
Beginning in the 1970s, deep-pocketed conservative donors started investing in their own dedicated, ideologically driven media to counteract what they perceived as “liberal bias” in the corporate media. In the 1980s, those efforts began to bear fruit, and at about the same time, right-wingers came to dominate the talk-radio airwaves.
The Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters taking advantage of public airwaves to present both sides of political controversies, was abandoned in 1987, but that didn’t stop the GOP from freaking out about it when Obama was elected. “Freedom of speech is under attack in this country,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina. “I am just committing today to use every rule, every tactic that we have at our disposal to keep the Fairness Doctrine from moving in Congress or to overrule it if it is implemented by the FCC.”
“Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine today would amount to government control over political views expressed on the airwaves,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana.
But as First Amendment attorney Robert Corn Revere notes, with so much hostility toward the fairness doctrine coming from the Right, “it is easy to forget that many prominent conservatives championed the doctrine before its demise.”
Phyllis Schla?y was a vocal proponent of the Fairness Doctrine because of what she described as “the outrageous and blatant anti-Reagan bias of the TV network newscasts,” and she testi?ed at the FCC in the 1980s in support of the policy “to serve as a small restraint on the monopoly power wielded by Big TV Media.”
Senator Jesse Helms was another long-time advocate of the Fairness Doctrine, and conservative groups Accuracy in Media and the American Legal Foundation actively pursued fairness complaints at the FCC against network newscasts.
More recently, a Republican controlled FCC under Kevin Martin has advocated far more extensive controls over broadcast and cable programming, including news and public affairs. These proposed regulations include requirements governing local programming, restrictions on the use of video news releases, and other new rules that would extend content controls beyond broadcasting.
9. Judicial Restraint
It wouldn’t be fair to say that conservatives were before judicial activism before they were against it. More accurately, most people don’t grasp what the term means, and they’ve come to use it as a euphemism for “court rulings we really don’t like.”
But it is true that they constantly rail against judges “legislating from the bench.” And it’s also true that it is far more common for right-leaning jurists to do so than those of a liberal bent. The charge is pure projection.
That is what several studies have concluded. Media Matters offered a run-down of a couple of prominent ones:
A 2005 study by Yale University law professor Paul Gewirtz and Yale Law School graduate Chad Golder showed that among Supreme Court justices at that time, those most frequently labeled “conservative” were among the most frequent practitioners of at least one brand of judicial activism — the tendency to strike down statutes passed by Congress. Those most frequently labeled “liberal” were the least likely to strike down statutes passed by Congress.
A 2007 study published by University of Chicago law professor Thomas J. Miles and Cass R. Sunstein… used a different measurement of judicial activism: the tendency of judges to strike down decisions by federal regulatory agencies. Sunstein and Miles found that by this definition, the Supreme Court’s “conservative” justices were the most likely to engage in “judicial activism” while the “liberal” justices were most likely to exercise “judicial restraint.”
There you have it: from eschewing the “magic” of market-based solutions to opposing tax credits for businesses, we see in the conservative coalition an almost perfect ideological flexibility. The only constant is that whatever policies Democrats propose — even those conservatives previously championed — are foreign and beyond the pale.