GOP Rebranding 2013: Aspiring For Renewal, Republicans Struggle To Clear Some Low Bars

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens at right as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news con
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. listens at right as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Because someone has to lose every election, the end of every election year brings a cascade of regret and recriminations upon the losers. And because someone has to purchase gym memberships for at least two weeks before retreating into apathy and/or artisanal cupcakes, the start of every new year brings a spate of soul-searching and new resolve. And so it's somehow appropriate that at this week's big House Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, Republicans are talking about how they'll pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and restore their brand. To that end, they will be learning a bunch of new fun things, like how to have "Successful Communication With Minorities and Women."

And the uneasy self-reflection won't end in Williamsburg. At the end of the month, conservatives will flock to the National Review Institute Summit for further instruction. Conor Friedersdorf is looking forward to Jonah Goldberg perhaps expounding on his thesis that the conservative "movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal with little concern for the real political success that can come only with persuading the unconverted." Of course, that sounds a lot like what Michael Brendan Dougherty was saying three years ago, but whatever! If Goldberg gives a "huckster" lecture that begins with the sentence, "I am a fraud-hole into which you've thrown your money and I'm sorry," it would probably help the conservative movement immensely.

At any rate, for conservatives who spent the past few months in a glass case of emotions about the polls they shouldn't have doubted or the consultants they shouldn't have trusted, the dark days of the circular firing squad are over. New blood has come to Capitol Hill and with it comes the chance to unskew the past and reinvigorate their party with "fresh thinking" and "bold ideas." But will they pull it off? Well, that all depends on whether they want to reach for something bold, or settle for a warmed-over version of what's brought them to the point of soul-searching in the first place.

Spoiler alert! Judging by the fact that Rick Santorum is one of the big "gets" at this year's CPAC, it looks like they're headed in the latter trajectory.

It doesn't necessarily have to be this way, of course. Legitimately fresh ideas are being suggested from some of the party's most well-known figures. For example, over the weekend, the Sunday pundits had the chance to chew over the latest advice column from famed Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, which -- despite the weird "Pirate Time" exhortation she themed the piece around -- was actually a pretty invigorating read. And no one can call Noonan's first big suggestion anything other than a radical departure from the way GOP lawmakers have been conducting themselves:

If you are conservative you are skeptical of concentrated power. You know the bullying and bossism it can lead to. Republicans should go to the populist right on the issue of bank breakup. Too big to fail is too big to continue. The megabanks have too much power in Washington and too much weight within the financial system. People think the GOP is for the bankers. The GOP should upend this assumption. In this case good policy is good politics.

If you are a conservative you're supposed to be for just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites. Every individual in America making $400,000 a year or more just got a tax hike that was a blow to the gut. Regular working people are seeing their payroll deductions increase. But private-equity partners who make billions enjoy more favorable tax treatment. Their income is treated for tax purposes as a capital gain, so they're taxed at far lower rates. This is called the carried-interest exemption, and everybody knows it's a big con.

The Republican Party should come out against it in a big way. Let the real rich pay the same percentage the not-actually-rich-but-formally-declared-rich are paying. If the Republicans did this they'd actually be joining the winning side, because carried interest will not survive the new era. If congressional Republicans care about their party they'll want it to get credit for fairness, as opposed to the usual blame for being lackeys of the rich.

And since gun control is the issue of the week, here's what Noonan has to say about that:

Republicans make too much of order and discipline. Sometimes a little anarchy is a good thing, a little disorder a sign of creativity and independence of thought. If there are voices within the GOP that are for some part or parts of gun reform it would be good for them—and for the party—to come forward now. I love the Second Amendment and I'm not kidding, but I have to say tens of millions of assault weapons in the hands of gangbangers and unstable young men couldn't be what the Founders had in mind.

To my mind, if you could distill these notions into a pill and prescribe it to the GOP, we could have a healthier politics nearly overnight. The entrenchment that Noonan is seeking to end has nothing to do with authentic conservative political philosophies -- it's just the nonsense you recite after having financial sector lobbyists and the NRA whispering over your dreaming body for twenty years.

But in this time of widespread and naggingly unresolved economic dislocation, resolving oneself to being a force for the "just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites" and to break from being a "lackey of the rich" would be a welcome, unalloyed good. But can this idea take root in places other than the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (which is nevertheless no small feat)?

We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything...We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.

O-kay! That's Bobby Jindal, talking bold-n-fresh with POLITICO way, way back in November of 2012, sounding like he's actually the one at the vanguard of a restored effort to fight for the "just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites." But if we flash forward to this week, we already see the slippage:

Republican Governor Bobby Jindal said on Thursday he wants to eliminate all Louisiana personal and corporate income taxes to simplify the state's tax code and make it more friendly to business.

The governor did not release details of his proposal, but his office released a statement confirming that the taxes are targets of a broader tax reform plan.

"Our goal is to eliminate all personal income tax and all corporate income tax in a revenue neutral manner," Jindal said in the statement.

He did not confirm reports that he will seek an increase in sales taxes in order to offset lost income tax revenue, but said: "We want to keep the sales tax as low and flat as possible."

Uh-huh. When your goal is the elimination of all those taxes and achieving "revenue-neutrality," then the idea that you can "offset lost income tax revenue" with a sales tax increase and keep the sales tax "low and flat" is a pretty staggering display of cognitive dissonance. Unless, of course, you forego all that talk about not being the "party of the rich anymore." As Alex Pareene explains:

The thing about sales taxes is that they are inherently and extremely regressive, hitting poorer people much harder than richer people, because the poor spend a greater proportion of their income on goods subject to the sales tax than rich people do.

The Institute on Taxation and Public Policy has already whipped up a little report, and, surprise, eliminating Louisiana’s income tax and replacing it with higher sales taxes means taxing rich people much less and poor people much, much more. According to ITEP, while Louisiana millionaires would receive a tax cut of around a quarter of a million dollars, “[the] poorest 20 percent of taxpayers, those with an average income of $12,000, would see an average tax increase of $395, or 3.4 percent of their income, if no low income tax relief mechanism is offered.” (And if a low income tax relief mechanism is offered, it will have to be paid for, almost definitely on the backs of the middle 20 percent, with average incomes around $43,000.)

This is the fresh new plan from a guy regularly touted as the future of the party: A massive tax cut for rich people, in an already low-service state, paid for with a tax hike on poor people.

But, look, Jindal wants to be "friendly to business," okay? And it's not like being friendly to business necessarily excludes the possibility of societal benefit. Let's just take a simple example:

Another key moment in the debt ceiling fight: On MSNBC this morning, the head of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce called on Republicans to stop using the threat of default to get the spending cuts they want.

Chamber president Tom Donohue didn’t do this quite as directly as he might have, but the plain meaning was clear.

This is significant, because in doing this, he went further than other business leaders, who have merely issued a general call for a hike in the debt ceiling without pointing a finger at Republican debt ceiling hostage taking. Donohue, by contrast, said he wants to see a stop to the tactic of using the debt ceiling as leverage.

“When you get down to defaulting on the debt, you have a very, very serious question: What will happen to interest rates, what will happen to our relationships around the world?” Donohue said in an interview with Chuck Todd. “It could really hurt the economy.”

So, what's good for business? Raising the debt ceiling, and getting shot of the possibility of a default catastrophe as soon as possible. And the good news is that there are plenty of adults on the GOP side of the legislature who understand this. And while the details of what Congressional GOP leaders want to do, exactly -- today, for example, John Boehner has been insisting that the debt ceiling get paired with the passage of a budget, a difficult and needless challenge in this current environment -- there's been some optimism that the maturer minds are coalescing around a debt ceiling de-weaponization of some variety.

That is, if the members of the GOP caucus who are straight up bonkers-salsa will let them. But as POLITICO reported this week, "Republican leadership officials...warned that the White House, much less the broader public, doesn’t understand how hard it will be to talk restive conservatives off the fiscal ledge."


[John] Boehner assumes he can ultimately talk members out of default, but he is so wounded and weakened from last month’s tax-hike battle that the speaker might very well be wrong. Obama assumes Republicans would never be so foolish as to put the economy at risk to win a spending fight. Conservatives say he’s definitely wrong on that score. They say he’s the foolish and reckless one for piling up $6 trillion in debt on his watch.

The coming spending fights make the Christmastime tax increase battle seem like child’s play. While everyone knew the tax drama would end with the rich paying more taxes, no one can telegraph how the coming spending fights will unfold. And the economic stakes are more dire.

Here, by the way, is what is presented as the "best case scenario":

GOP officials said more than half of their members are prepared to allow default unless Obama agrees to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes. Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

Let's leave aside the fact -- difficult as it may be -- that it's astounding that these legislators are so ignorant of the different stakes involved in a government shutdown and the default of our sovereign credit that they more-or-less see the two events as roughly equivalent. We're talking about a group of legislators who are being dealt with in this fashion: "Guys, if you will just agree to not plunge the global economy into a crisis, we'll allow you to shut down the government for the sake of you needing to have a long Braveheart yawp, even though our party will take the hit for it in terms of public opinion."

The hot new thing today is the idea that maybe everyone could agree to a three-month extension for the debt limit, which is dumb (because why not just end the threat and get back to the adult bargaining table) but not a tragedy for the planet. Nevertheless, this is, objectively speaking, a party that is having tremendous difficulty just meeting what developmental psychologists would consider to be a baseline for rational thought.

Is there anything that might be achievable in this calendar year? Well here's a POLITICO headline that describes how low the bar might be set: "GOP looks for ways to stop the rape comments." Yes, that's right. The Republican Party is working really hard to get to the bottom if the great mystery that is how to avoid saying daft things about rape.

Now, traditionally, the way you go about avoiding saying daft things about rape is to not be a complete idiot in the first place. And to his credit, Romney advisor Kevin Madden, high up in the piece, says, “This is actually pretty simple. If you’re about to talk about rape as anything other than a brutal and horrible crime, stop." But because everyone would like to pretend that this is a complex problem, you later find out that the "plan to stop the rape comments" involve a "training program" from the Susan B. Anthony List.

But there you have it. As much good sense as Noonan made last Sunday, the sliding scale for "bold, fresh thinking" has reliably taken us to a Friday where all we can maybe expect is a really convoluted alternative to avoiding default with maybe some less alienating rhetoric on rape (pending the receipt of proper "training") as a bonus. Seems like a dizzying fall from the promontory marked "just treatment of the individual over the demands of concentrated elites."

But, you know...New Years Resolutions, they rarely last long. Heck, President Barack Obama's 2013 resolve wasn't even strong enough to make it to New Years' Eve's champagne toast. So there's a sliding scale for everything, I guess.

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