MSNBC.com reported Nov.23 that an e-mail proposing a purity test for Republican candidates has been circulating among members of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Perhaps this should come as no surprise following the informal purity pursuit and subsequent electoral defeat in New York’s 23rd district, Nov 3.
The proposed GOP purity test entitled, “Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” was authored by RNC member and National Right to Life attorney, Jim Bopp Jr. His resolution lists 10 core polices, of which potential GOP candidates must adhere to eight in order to be considered a viable Republican.
That the GOP would desire policy compliance of its candidates, again, is no surprise. However, the rigorous conservatism required to pass this “purity test” prohibit it from being taken seriously as a policy statement. So stringent are its prescriptions that not one modern American president has been able to live up to it. The proposal has more to do with base maintenance than it does a candidate’s conservative cred. (view the 10 requirements for RNC purity HERE)
What struck me most about Bopp’s memo was not its requirements, but its invocation of Reagan. Employing his name becomes more significant when paired with first item on the purity list:
(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;
That they have chosen to emphasize this economic platform along with its patron saint is certainly no coincidence. Reagan’s conservative economic prescriptions have been touted as the height of Republican fiscal discipline so frequently that they’ve achieved commandment status within the party. That this commonly held notion is demonstrably false speaks volumes about what this “purity test” represents.
The Myth of Reaganomics
Ordinarily, I would lean on Thom Hartmann in refuting the commonly touted myth of Reagan’s policy prowess. Hartmann’s Jan. 26, 2009, CommonDreams.org post: “Two Santa Clauses or How The Republican Party Has Conned America,” succinctly explains the origins and execution of supply-side fiscal dogma pursued by the Reagan administration.
“Two Santa Clause” theory, Hartmann explains, was constructed as a means to consolidate Republican power. Briefly stated, its adherents reasoned that Republicans could cut taxes, increase spending, and increase government revenue in the process. If successful, the only way Democrats could counter would be to argue for higher taxes, effectively ‘shooting a Santa Clause.’
By no means is this a holistic assessment of Hartmann’s article, and I encourage you to read it in it’s entirety.
However, after repeatedly arguing this matter to an impasse with conservative friends, I’ve decided to try something different. As a progressive political pundit, prolific author, and talk radio host, Hartmann can be a bit much for conservatives to swallow.
Don’t get me wrong. Among progressive commentators, I’ve found Hartmann to have the most formidable academic chops, without exception. However, his status as a progressive media figure is enough to disqualify him, right or wrong (and usually the latter).
This time, rather than relying upon Hartmann’s assessment, I set about finding a source that would be less susceptible to accusations of progressive or liberal bias. To that end, I present to you the late libertarian political philosopher, economist, and economic historian, Murray N. Rothbard.
(It is my hope that conservatives who have read to this point will read on, taking solace in the knowledge that Rothbard, had he not passed away in 1995, would find Obama’s economic policy as abhorrent as they do.)
Rothbard offered his damning assessment of Reagan’s economic policies in late 1987 as campaigns to succeed the revered two-term president were already underway. In his memo to members of the libertarian Mises Institute, Rothbard abruptly stated his intentions, “I come to bury Reaganomics, not to praise it.”
And bury it, he did. Rothbard’s memo lists the rhetorical arguments made by Reagan leading up to his election, and those of the defenders of Reagonomics as the president’s tenure came to a close.
From Rothbards’s “The Myth’s of Reaganomics:”
Since the tax cut of 1981 that was not really a cut, furthermore, taxes have gone up every single year since, with the approval of the Reagan administration. But to save the president’s rhetorical sensibilities, they weren’t called tax increases. Instead, ingenious labels were attached to them; raising of “fees,” “plugging loopholes” (and surely everyone wants loopholes plugged), “tightening IRS enforcement,” and even revenue enhancements.” I am sure that all good Reaganomists slept soundly at night knowing that even though government revenue was being “enhanced,” the president had held the line against tax increases.
And, just how much were those revenues “enhanced?”
The facts are that federal tax receipts were $517 billion in the last Carter year of 1980. In 1986, revenues totaled $769 billion, an increase of 49%. Whatever that is, that doesn’t look like a tax cut. But how about taxes as a percentage of the national product? There, we can concede that on a percentage criterion, overall taxes fell very slightly, remaining about even with the last year of Carter. Taxes fell from 18.9% of the GNP to 18.3%, or for a better gauge, taxes as percentage of net private product fell from 27.2% to 26.6%. A large absolute increase in taxes, coupled with keeping taxes as a percentage of national product about even, is scarcely cause for tossing one’s hat in the air about a whopping reduction in taxes during the Reagan years.
Even if you consider that “overall taxes fell very slightly” as a win for Reaganomics, it was a costly one. The resultant tripling of the national debt during Reagan’s tenure makes that victory an empty one, indeed.
And, this is just a taste. Rothbard examines each element of Reagan fiscal policy — Government Spending, Tax Cuts (excerpted above), Deficits, Deregulation, and Foreign Economic Policy — demonstrating the profound differences between Reagan’s rhetoric and performance.
Who’s the “Purity Test” for, then?
Certainly there are some within the party who strive to emulate Reagan’s policies, fully invested in the legend. But there can be no doubt that there are others, particularly within the Republican leadership, well aware that the legend is bunk, but recognize its usefulness in provoking a Pavlovian response from their base. (You’ll find prominent recent examples of both in an excellent Truthout.org post by Art Levine, Nov. 20)
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are many among the conservative base for whom the mere mention of Reagan inspires a nostalgic recollection of an America that never was. Bopp and the Republican leadership are well aware of this. They spend half of thier efforts bringing this idealized Reagan America to the surface, and then spend their remainder of their efforts proclaiming it under attack.
Further, if they can keep fictional Reagan in the spotlight, it will prolong their having to explain the eight dissasterous years with George W. Bush at the helm. You can expect them to ring the Reagan bell with increasing frequency at least until the 2010 midterm elections, regardless of whether or not Bopp’s “purity test” is ever actually adopted by the RNC.
Image from Flickr user - betancourt, by way of creativecommons.org