Thursday, May 03, 2012

Leaving the Center

I keep seeing articles on how far the Republicans have moved to the right. Most of these insist that the Democrats either have not moved or that they have moved to the center. This one at least admits that the Democrats have moved to the 20-yard line before accusing the Republicans of moving to the end zone.

The question is how do we measure this? Everyone has their own measure so I may as well contribute mine.

First, I am going to start with Reagan in 1980. The vast majority of Congress post-dates 1980. Also, Reagan is the defining leader of the current Republicans. Democrats have to look back to FDR for such a leader (which explains a lot about their current policies).

Next, I am going to propose that one valid proxy for a party is its presidential candidate. The candidate represents a consensus and a winning candidate leads the party.

There is no question that Reagan was the most conservative presidential candidate the Republicans have run in the last 30 years. His major domestic achievements were slowing the growth of government and lowering and flattening the tax rates (yes, rates fluctuated during his administration but they were substantially lower at the end than the beginning). Not even Reagan could actually shrink government.

Since Reagan we had George H. W. Bush who expanded the regulatory state in numerous ways, and George W. Bush who pushed through the Medicare Drug Plan - the first new entitlement since LBJ. We also had Bob Dole and John McCain who were widely regarded as moderate senators. The big complain this year is that all of the candidates are to the left of Reagan and Romney is the most moderate of the bunch.

On the Democrat side we had Bill Clinton, a "moderate" who tried to pass health care reform, and did pass gun restrictions and Obama who did pass health care reform and has expanded the regulatory state. We also had Mondale who ran on a tax and spend platform (really), Dukakis - a liberal governor, Gore who ran to the left of Clinton and Kerry. It should be pointed out that Kerry, Edwards, and Dean were all running against Clinton's moderate record as much as against Bush.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Edwards all identified themselves as "progressives" rather than "liberals" and indicated a desire to return to the days of FDR's New Deal. Of all of these, Bill Clinton was the only moderate and that was only after his disastrous congressional midterm election. More recently, the Democrats have run senators with voting records far to the left of most of the party.

So, presidential candidates indicate that the Democrats have moved a long way to the left while the Romney represents a half-step to the right.

What about issues?

When Democrats complain about Republicans they usually go on to taxes. They accuse the Republicans of favoring the rich. It has been a goal of the Obama Administration from day one to raise taxes on people making more than $200,000/year.

But the Republicans have their own arguments. Based on some measures, America already has the world's most progressive tax rates. They argue that raising taxes will hurt a weak economy.

Who is further from the center here? Both sides have some statistics on their side. The Democrats are correct that the rich have gotten richer and the Republicans are correct that the rich already pay a disproportionate share of the income tax. The issue of "fairness" keeps coming up. When the Democrats use this term they are justifying punitive tax rates. They see taxes as a leveler. In 2008, Obama said that he would support raising the capitol gains tax for the sake of fairness, even if it would not produce any more income.

To me, this puts the Democrats way off-center on taxes.

One other consideration, the last time Republicans supported a tax increase was during the George H. W. Bush Administration. Most Republicans see this as a major factor in his defeat and are convinced that a Republican who raises taxes will lose the next election. This is not a new position. They have held that view since 1992.

Spending is another issue that the parties have split on. Republicans want to see spending restrained. They worry about the size of the national debt and the future obligations of entitlements. Democrats are against any moderation in spending or entitlement reform. This represents movement by both parties. The Republicans under George W. Bush went from a moderate surplus to a deficit. The Democrats ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility in 2002 but now embrace ever-expanding deficits. During the Reagan years, both parties worked together on entitlement reform but the is off the table for Democrats.

On health care reform, the Republicans flirted with the idea briefly under George H. W. Bush but ultimately rejected it. The Democrats have always been for it and many were disappointed with what was passed. This represents a deep ideological commitment from the Democrats who passed Obamacare without any Republican support and against the wishes of a majority of the country.

The Democrats have conceded one issue - gun control. Even after moderating, Clinton was anti-gun and tried to outlaw private sales of guns. Exit polls indicate that Gore lost his home state of Tennessee because the gun-owner vote went for Bush. Had Gore won Tennessee, Florida would have been irrelevant. The Democrats backed away from gun control since then.

All told, I don't see much movement from the Republicans. All of their current positions are rooted in the Reagan years. Their position on taxes is even supported by the former head of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. The Democrats seem to be more ideologically motivated than the Republicans. Their insistence on punitive taxes, their fondness for unsustainable spending, and their refusal to even admit to problems in the entitlement programs are all signs of a party that has lost touch with reality.

Granted, the Republicans have consolidated their positions more but these have been central to the party since Reagan. The Democrats have rejected their more recent moderates and long for a return to the heady days of FDR and expanding government. It only looks like the Republicans have moved to the right because the left has moved the center.

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