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GOP Counting on Democratic Fiscal Irresponsibility for Their Comeback

October 26th, 2008 . by economistmom

In a front-of-Opinion-page column in today’s Washington Post, David Frum (author of the book “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again”) first bemoans what he concedes is McCain’s demise (that’s today’s Tom Toles cartoon above), brought about by the McCain campaign’s own bad judgment:

There are many ways to lose a presidential election. John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.

A year ago, the Arizona senator’s team made a crucial strategic decision. McCain would run on his (impressive) personal biography. On policy, he’d hew mostly to conservative orthodoxy, with a few deviations — most notably, his support for legalization for illegal immigrants. But this strategy wasn’t yielding results in the general election. So in August, McCain tried a bold new gambit: He would reach out to independents and women with an exciting and unexpected vice presidential choice.

That didn’t work out so well either. Gov. Sarah Palin connected with neither independents nor women. She did, however, ignite the Republican base, which has come to support her passionately. And so, in this last month, the McCain campaign has Palinized itself to make the most of its last asset. To fire up the Republican base, the McCain team has hit at Barack Obama as an alien, a radical and a socialist…

Then Frum tries to stop sulking and look ahead to where he thinks a Democratically-controlled White House and Congress will lead us, and he comes up with a ray of hope and a recommended messaging strategy for his Republican Party:

…[W]ith the financial meltdown, the federal government is now acquiring a huge ownership stake in the nation’s financial system. It will be immensely tempting to officeholders in Washington to use that stake for political ends — to reward friends and punish enemies. One-party government, of course, will intensify those temptations. And as the federal government succumbs, officeholders will become more and more comfortable holding that stake. The current urgency to liquidate the government’s position will subside. The United States needs Republicans and conservatives to monitor the way Democrats wield this extraordinary and dangerous new power — and to pressure them to surrender it as rapidly as feasible…

…We need a message change that frankly acknowledges that the Democrats are probably going to win the White House — and that warns of the dangers of one-party, left-wing government. There’s a lot of poll evidence that voters prefer divided government. By some estimates, perhaps as many as 8 percent of voters consciously cast strategic votes in favor of division. These are the voters we need to be talking to now.

I’m not suggesting that the RNC throw up its hands. But down-ballot Republicans need to give up on the happy talk about how McCain has Obama just where he wants him, take off their game faces and say something like this:

“We’re almost certainly looking at a Democratic White House. I can work with a Democratic president to help this state. But we need balance in Washington.

“The government now owns a big stake in the nation’s banking system. Trillions of dollars are now under direct government control. It’s not wise to put that money under one-party control. It’s just too tempting. You need a second set of eyes on that cash. You need oversight and accountability. Otherwise, you’re going to wake up two years from now and find out that a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House have been funneling a ton of that money to their friends and allies. It’ll be a big scandal — but it will be too late. The money will be gone. Divided government is the best precaution you can have.”

It’s the only argument we have left. And, as the old Washington saying goes, it has the additional merit of being true.

There is indeed a lot of historical evidence suggesting that one-party government tends toward fiscal irresponsibility–our most recent evidence of course being most of the past eight years during the George W. Bush Administration.  As a Democrat, I’m hoping an Obama Administration would buck history on this–that even in working with a Democratically-controlled Congress, President Obama would show leadership and bipartisanship in developing policies that are fiscally responsible.  If the Democrats do as well in this election as the pundits are now predicting, it’ll be up to the Democrats to see that the Obama Administration does business in that new, “post-partisan” way, in order to blunt what would be a successful GOP strategy the next time around.

4 Responses to “GOP Counting on Democratic Fiscal Irresponsibility for Their Comeback”

  1. comment number 1 by: Hmmmmm

    Ditto. Thanks for writing that. It will be Obama’s responsibility to make it work in a fsical responsible way.

  2. comment number 2 by: Len

    Hi Diane. Your excellent post inspired me to respond on the TaxVox blog. Divided government doesn’t necessarily produce better budget outcomes. See http://taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org/blog/_archives/2008/10/27/3950417.html.

  3. comment number 3 by: economistmom

    Len: Thanks! I posted a comment right back at you at TaxVox! It turns out that my presumption about one-party government being larger (particularly Democratically-controlled government) is probably based on some research I did with my husband on that topic–the only research I’ve done with my husband, in fact. So it’s a view biased by my own empirical research on the issue (and based on state government experiences), and I do know that the empirical work can be really messy and inconclusive. And I totally understand how state government experience may be no help at all in predicting what would happen at the federal level, and that studies based on historical federal experience suffer from small sample sizes. (Really all we have at the federal level are case studies or examples–not enough data to do econometric analysis.)

  4. comment number 4 by: Len

    Diane, Thanks. My RA did not find your article with John so I’m glad you pointed it out.

    Here is an interesting part of what Sonya found: Conservative, Bill Niskanen concluded that divided governments lead to more spending. Liberal columnist Michael Kinsley found the opposite.

    In an interesting cross-country comparison, Alberto Alesino found that Great Britain, where the executive and legislative branches are necessarily from the same party, had a debt to GDP ratio of 60% while countries such as Belgium and Italy, which have fragmented coalition governments, have debt to GDP ratios of over 120%.

    Of course, there may be other differences between UK and Italy–food for example. Maybe divided governments produce better food. Yum!

    Refs

    Alesino, Alberto. 2000. “The Political Economy of the Budget Surplus in the US.” NBER Working Paper 7496.

    Kinsley, Michael. “Numbers don’t lie but sometimes they mislead.” Slate. February 17, 2006. Article at http://www.slate.com/id/2136481/ and spreadsheet at http://slate.com/kinsley/2006-02-17/kinsley_chart5.html.

    Niskanen, William. 2003. “The Case for Divided Government.” The Cato Institute. http://www.cato.org/dailys/05-07-03.html.