The Moderate Republican Fades Into History

Mark Thoma recently caught Kevin Hassett playing for Team Republican. Mr. Thoma, on his blog Economist’s View, points to an online opinion article for the National Review by Mr. Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, in which Mr. Hasset writes: “It is no coincidence that the private sector is taking off while the government stimulus is winding down … the years of pent-up activity that were suppressed by uncertainty over Obama’s policies is finally being released. Thank God for gridlock.”

Mr. Thoma contrasts this with an exchange at a congressional hearing in February 2001 at which Mr. Hassett said: “The economists who studied this were quite surprised to find that fiscal policy in recessions was reasonably effective. It is just that folks tried a first punch that was too light and that generally we didn’t get big measures until well into the recession. So the reason that in the past fiscal policy hasn’t pushed us out of recession is that we delayed.”

Really, no surprise. But Mr. Thoma’s catch has me thinking: what, if anything, would make reasonable, moderate conservative intellectuals accept that the Republican Party no longer offers them a home?

For such people do exist — or at least there is such a position. You can believe that the welfare state is too big without believing that the unemployed are just lazy; you can believe that more activist monetary and especially fiscal policy would be a mistake without practicing Dark Age macroeconomics. Obviously I disagree, but I can see how a reasonable person could hold such views.

But these are not the views that prevail, or indeed are considered even marginally acceptable, in today’s Republican Party. The modern party is, on social issues, the party of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum; on economic issues it is the party of Ron Paul and Arthur Laffer. Nobody with political ambitions within the G.O.P. dares challenge these views; attempts to defend Mitt Romney depend entirely on the proposition, or maybe hope, that everything he says is a lie (which seems like a good assumption in any case).

And no, there’s nothing comparable on the other side. Sure, President Obama plays some word games — but in word and deed he’s a moderately liberal, slightly interventionist politician whom neither liberals nor, if truth be told, moderate conservatives should find especially alarming.

So when do the reasonable conservatives jump ship? David Frum, a commentator and former adviser to President George W. Bush, and Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, have done the deed, but who else?

Of course, maybe the people we think are reasonable actually aren’t. Some supposedly libertarian bloggers have let down their guard, coming out in favor of the vile Virginia probe law and the Rush Limbaugh slut attack, and revealing in the process that all that reasonableness was just a facade.

But what’s mainly going on, I think, is cynical ambition — an unwillingness to take the hit to hopes of future office and influence that would come from acknowledging that this is not the Republican Party of yore.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2012 The New York Times.