Liberals are always trying to place themselves in the center. Washington Post business columnist Ezra Klein tried out the old saw on Tuesday that just as Bill Clinton described himself pejoratively as an “Eisenhower Republican,” Barack Obama isn’t a socialist, he’s a moderate Republican of the George H.W. Bush era.
Perhaps this is just the logical endpoint of two years spent arguing over what Barack Obama is — or isn’t. Muslim. Socialist. Marxist. Anti-colonialist. Racial healer. We’ve obsessed over every answer except the right one: President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.
If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.
Klein has a huge “but” in this theory – if you leave out the massive stimulus program and TARP and taking over the auto industry, he’s not a socialist. But he argues that Republicans in the 1990s used to propose an individual mandate for health care, some form of a market-based “cap and trade” system, and the tax-hiking 1990 budget deal, and then claims it’s the Republicans who are headed for the fringes.
It’s true that moderate Republicans were looking for compromise bills in attempts to stave off ultraliberal Clinton proposals like HillaryCare. It’s true that moderates like John McCain proposed a “cap and trade” system in his 2008 campaign. But conservatives haven’t moved to the right on these issues – they were always on the right on these issues. Obama would look more like a moderate Republican if he’d infuriated his liberal base and actually made deals with Republicans on these issues – as he did on extending the Bush tax cuts. But he passed ObamaCare by stiff-arming Republicans and couldn’t get “cap and trade” to go anywhere in a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Klein argued that usually a party changes its stance because policies don’t work – as if that’s ever stopped liberals. He argues that these “moderate Republican” ideas were hugely successful, from Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan to the Clean Air Act of 1990, and “The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.”
Klein is completely ignoring statistical reality on that last claim, at least in the first few years. The deficit in Fiscal Year 1989 (which began under President Reagan) was $152 billion, and then it rose to $221 billion in Fiscal 1990. So how did the budget deal “help” cut the deficit? In 1991 and 1992, the deficits set record highs – $269 billion and $290 billion.
Remember that when pundits start talking like “moderate Republicans” on today’s budget and insisting they’ll raise taxes but get “two dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of tax hike.” That’s not the way government spenders operate.