The GOP’s Challenge: Making the Party Serious Again

The Hill ran a piece this week with a headline that gave me a bit of a chuckle: “GOP worries fiscal conservatism losing its rallying cry.”

My amusement, of course, came from the notion that any party position could immediately excite people again, after effectively being banished for five years — not just in practice, but even rhetorically. The only force with that kind of rejuvenating power is nostalgia, and it generally requires more than five years to take hold.

As The Hill piece points out, the GOP’s wholesale abandonment of fiscal conservatism, to facilitate Donald Trump’s political instincts, makes it very difficult for the party to combat (or even argue against) President Biden’s efforts to pass trillions of dollars in new government spending. After all, roughly $8 trillion was added to the national debt under Trump. That four-year accrual nearly matched what was added under Barack Obama in the span of eight years.

Still, some in the GOP, like Senate Republican Whip John Thune (who was interviewed for the piece), say the party has to try.

“I’m frankly very concerned about the level of spending and debt,” said Thune, “and I think Republicans have got to be the adults in the room and exercise the fiscal responsibility that seems to have been absent, lacking the last several years.”

Having some adults in Washington would certainly be nice. Our debt crisis is an inarguable, looming disaster — the most predictable catastrophe our country will likely ever go through. The problem is that there’s no longer any passion for addressing it. Those who were serious about fiscal conservatism (like Paul Ryan and Justin Amash) were chased out of DC for being insufficiently loyal to Trump, and those who only pretended to be serious about it (like Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows) simply washed their hands and moved on to Trumpier things.

With such issues off the table, the GOP spent the last four years fueling populist emotion off of mostly rhetorical cultural battles. This put the party in a box that it could have some serious trouble breaking out of (if it even wants to). In front of cameras, Republicans in congress continue to channel clownish cable-news pundits, exciting their base not by attacking big-government spending and other serious national threats, but by lashing out against things like “Big Tech”, Black Lives Matter, and alleged Dr. Seuss and hamburger bans.

Cultural outrage porn sells very well, of course, and the entertainment wings of both the political right and left certainly thrive off of it. But this is no way to govern a country.

A former cable-news pundit recently told me that he believes “the biggest single institution dividing Americans is cable TV news.” I think he’s probably right, which is why it’s a terrible idea for elected leaders to be emulating hosts on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN.

Case in point, Tucker Carlson’s show is the highest rated political program on television, watched every weeknight by millions of impressionable, narrative-hungry GOP base voters. And what did those people hear when they tuned in last night? An angry Carlson instructing them to literally call the police and report child abuse whenever they see children wearing COVID masks outside.

No, Carlson wasn’t joking. And yes, stuff like this is where all the passion is on the right. Carlson is even being added to presidential primary polls for 2024.

The Democratic party abandoned fiscal conservatism decades ago. It’s not coming back on the left. But the GOP and most right-leaning voters at least understand the problem, and aren’t so much opposed to pursuing it (or even view it as a liability) as they are distracted from it in today’s wacky political environment. This belief — that had a lot of game-changing passion behind it not so long ago — may currently be little more than an abstract vision through the thick haze of incessant cultural catastrophizing, but a haze can be cleared.

The trick is how to clear it.

At the onset of this column, I mocked the idea that a party position could immediately find passion again after its years-long abandonment. But what if that passion comes from outside of the party?

People should consider that the fiscally-conservative Tea Party movement, that arose in 2009, and led to the GOP winning back the House and later the Senate, started not with political leaders or partisan narratives, but with a single, impassioned rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli on the floor of a stock exchange.

Many on the right like to pretend that those party gains weren’t successful in curbing Obama’s spending, but they actually did keep additional trillions from being added to the debt, including the trimming of deficits in Obama’s second term.

In other words, it can be done. The GOP may not have the credibility or will left to pull it off themselves, but perhaps some individual or event does. Who or what that might be, I don’t know. But I hope it happens, and I hope the GOP pays attention and harnesses it.

Because right now, they’re a fundamentally unserious party during very serious fiscal times, and they’re in desperate need of a wake-up call.


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