The vanishing GOP: symbolic votes and tax cut religion

What has happened to the Grand Old Party?

The Republican Party doesn’t really care about deficits. This is now a party that for all intents and purposes, exists for only one reason: cutting taxes on the rich.

That’s the premise of a piece by Michael Cohen in Politico over the weekend, and he’s being proven right by events. Gerson writes:

Over and over for Republicans, the goal of reducing government has taken a back seat to the far larger goal of reducing taxes. To be sure, keeping revenues low is an effective way to limit government expenditures — and has long been the starve-the-beast rationale for the GOP assault on tax rates.

But the fact that Republicans rejected the effort to trim an astounding $3 trillion to $4 trillion from the federal budget suggests that this justification for maintaining low revenues has been lost. The orthodoxy of tax cuts has become the end in itself — divorced from the larger goal of shrinking government.

The irony is that, even as Republicans have repeatedly shown their lack of seriousness in cutting spending, Democrats have perversely taken up the baton — even though theirs is the party most committed to activist government.

Why are Democrats manning the spending cut barricades? It’s the bizarre politics of U.S. fiscal policy. President Bill Clinton cut spending, decreased the federal workforce and reduced the deficit — in part, to brush off the GOP charge that he was a traditional big-spending liberal.

Now, Obama floats proposals to shrink the welfare state to take the deficit and government spending off the table — even as polling data and empirical research repeatedly show that voters aren’t interested in deficit reduction and don’t punish presidents for increasing the deficit.

That he, a progressive Democrat, is prostrating himself at the altar of fiscal responsibility and offering cuts to cherished Democratic programs suggests how distorted U.S. fiscal debates have become.

One party preaches fiscal responsibility and never delivers. The other party delivers fiscal responsibility to avoid charges of deficit fickleness from the other, profligate party.

Which brings us to the debt ceiling deal shaping up in Washington. It will give the president the unilateral authority — or burden — of agreeing to pay the nation’s bills. And it will not include a penny in tax increases, either directly or by closing corporate loopholes.

Poll: Obama winning the debt ceiling spin war

But even before they vote on that, John Boehner is going to have to let his extremist House caucus vote on a bunch of symbolic, talk radio fare, just to keep them calm:

Republican leaders will first push forward in the House and the Senate with a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. The measure is virtually certain to fail in the Senate, which will then take up the debt limit proposal by midweek.

If that clears the Senate, the House is expected to revise the measure, adding a proposal to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years — savings that will come through cuts to domestic programs but not new tax revenue. The plan would also create a new congressional panel that would, by the end of the year, seek to come up with a way of reducing the deficit potentially by trillions more through cuts in entitlements and other new tax revenue.

While the debt-limit plan has broad support in the Senate, the prospects in the House are less clear and rely largely on whether House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will bring the proposal up for a vote and how many House Democrats would support it since few Republicans are expected to get behind it.

The fact that Boehner has to let his caucus take so many symbolic but meaningless votes — Defund Planned Parenthood! Defund NPR and Shut Down the EPA!!! An Unpassable Balanced Budget Amendment! Cut, Cap and Balance!!! — shows how little influence he actually wields as speaker.

But it says something deeper about Mr. Boehner’s party, which is now captive to an ideology that is getting closer every day to being a religion. The text of that religion is provided not by a Bible, but by slogans repeated on talk radio and on Fox News. Gimmicky sounding “solutions” to America’s problems (Cut, Cap, Balance!) — all of which boils down to a single obsession: keeping taxes on the rich and corporations as low as humanly possible, and preventing those taxes from ever going up.

Grover Norquist has created his very own religion.

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