Political Centrists & The Litmus Problem

A provocative column last week by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, entitled “The GOP’s Litmus Problem,” makes the point that “GOP dogma” will “shrink the biggest of men.” As Cohen puts it, “they [successful Republicans] have to swear allegiance to a balanced budget, dangerously low taxes, cutting (trivial) waste, fraud and abuse from the budget, the sacredness of even microscopic life, the innocence of mankind in the cooking of the planet, the inviolability of the 18th century Constitution, meeting the challenges of globalism with even more localism, and a furious rejection of the lessons of Keynes – even when those lessons are successfully applied.”

Cohen goes on to say “it is simply impossible for a centrist to capture the Republican presidential nomination – maybe even to be a Republican. I challenge any of the above to wholeheartedly endorse evolution or global warming.” Cohen believes the Republican party “continues on a course that has already driven out the political moderates and pro-choicers that once comprised its intellectual and financial core…to call this a brain drain understates the calamity. It’s a political lobotomy.”

Notwithstanding some inconvenient facts; that John McCain was a centrist who captured the Republican Presidential nomination, or that Republicans, supposedly a dwindling party of ideological lemmings, recently took over the U.S. House of Representatives, captured 29 Governor’s mansions, and control both legislative houses in 26 states; how exactly does Cohen describe a centrist? Let’s examine Cohen’s “litmus test” for Democrats, based on the assumption they are the opposite of the “GOP dogma” that he claims bedevils the Republican party:

(1) Don’t worry about budget deficits or try to balance the budget:  Until when? Is Cohen suggesting we shouldn’t be alarmed at the fact that just our federal government budget deficit is over 10% of America’s GDP? Cohen may or may not believe America has a unique opportunity to simply print money, since America’s economy remains, by far, the largest and most diverse in the world (nearly 25% of global GDP), and America remains, by far, the world’s preeminent military power. But at what point do we squander that advantage? Would it not be centrist to simply want to revisit the path we’ve been on that has lead us to this point?

(2) Go ahead and increase taxes because they are “dangerously low”:  It is difficult to talk about tax rates without talking about spending – and tax revenues have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation or real economic growth for a long time. Cohen would probably dismiss the Laffer curve, which documents the reality that higher tax rates stifle investment and innovation, ultimately leading to lower tax revenue. He probably would also dismiss the related, and well documented, fact that higher tax rates also cause slower economic growth. But he goes even further than this, apparently, if he thinks discussions of tax increases can take place apart from genuine rethinking as to what constitutes the optimal size of government. Wouldn’t a centrist want to at least consider cutting spending before raising taxes?

(3) Don’t worry about the sanctity of microscopic life:  Here we go again. Centrists get torn apart by both sides here – who does Cohen think he’s kidding? Open up the yellow pages and take a look at the full page ads that say “Abortion through 26 weeks.” What’s Cohen’s position on this? Is he revolted? Does he think those “dangerously low taxes” should be used to fund this butchery? Because that’s what it is. A centrist can argue about whether or not a frozen embryo should be preserved forever. But anyone ought to agree that taxpayer’s dollars shouldn’t pay for late term abortions.

(4) Blame mankind for the “cooking of the planet”:  Here Cohen really gets onto thin ice (oops, bad choice of metaphors), since his column reeks with disdain for “religious” people. Because anyone who has been objectively following the scientific debate regarding the extent, the trajectory, and the cause of global warming, certainly has observed the fanatical religiosity of global warming alarmists. And their logic and solutions are farcical. How exactly do we intend to replace fossil fuel within 20-30 years when 80% of our global energy comes from fossil fuel, it’s cheap and abundant, and global energy demand is going to more than double within that time? If we continue to develop inexpensive fossil fuel (burning it clean), we can accelerate prosperity, which slows population growth, causing our achievement of a sustainable civilization to occur sooner. But no – if you say “slow down, let’s think this through, let’s not be quite so intent on destroying our energy economy” – then according to Cohen, you are no longer a political moderate. Ouch. In the old days the crazies who walked around with signs saying the world’s coming to an end were the nut cases. Now those of us who think the world’s not coming to an end are the crazy ones, according to Cohen.

(5) The inviolability of the 18th century constitution:  Cohen probably has a point if he is suggesting we don’t all need to start wearing tricorns and ceremoniously reciting the constitution. But so what? Is Cohen saying we should rush to undermine or “change” this magnificent culmination of the western enlightenment, the foundation of the the most tolerant and benevolent great power in the history of the world? Once again, a centrist – a moderate – would think twice before tampering with the U.S. Constitution, or diminishing its significance.

(6) Don’t try to meet the challenges of globalism with more localism:  I’m not sure what Cohen is getting at here. Republicans certainly don’t want to abandon investment in our military, which is the backbone of globalism. Nor am I sure when Republicans suddenly started carrying the torch for protectionism, which is the bane of globalization. Is Cohen referring to the conservative push to rein in some of Washington’s bureaucracies? Why not? Tell the farmer who now has to fill out mountains of paperwork at the end of a hard day in the fields, the small businessman who has to issue 1099’s to every person who ever sold them more than $600 worth of goods, the doctor who has to turn away patients who pay cash, or the teacher who has to teach a one-size-fits-all lesson concocted by bureaucrats 3,000 miles away. In this context, the litmus test for a centrist is to find a moderate mean between federal regulations and local control.

(7) Finally, heed the lessons of Keynes, which “Republicans ignore even when it works”:  Oh please. Keynesian economics has nothing to do with spinning the printing presses to bail out poorly regulated banks who were permitted to sucker nearly the entire American population into borrowing more than they could afford, then gambled these credit receivables on derivatives. Restoring the solvency of America’s banking system through massive deficit spending is not the same as applying the lessons of Keynes to restore economic growth. And among Keynesians, the debate should be this: Do we engage in deficit spending to continue to pay over-market compensation to unionized government workers, or do we take that money and invest it in actual projects that will yield economic dividends – cheaper energy, water, and transportation (another area where the “greens” are standing in the way of recovery, ref. “Reviving California’s Economy” for ideas Keynes would have approved of). Cohen, should he actually understand Keynes, may wish to explore the true debate – how do we use deficit spending to build infrastructure that will make basic services cost less. A centrist might also explore this question.

What Cohen ignores perhaps most gratuitously is that the “litmus problem” applies to both parties. Democrats and Republicans both rely on shibboleths and sacred tropes, emanating from their fringes, alienating the center. But if these seven points that Cohen suggests are crippling handicaps afflicting the Republicans are the best he can come up with, it is small wonder the Republican party is on the rise again.

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