GOP worries fiscal conservatism losing its rallying cry

Republicans say fiscal conservatism simply isn’t the GOP rallying cry it used to be, and that’s making it much harder to counter President Biden’s push for trillions of dollars in new government spending.

Instead, culture war issues like immigration, religious freedom, LGBTQ rights, Big Tech and the Black Lives Matter movement are taking center stage in conservative politics. 

The initial shift in Republican political priorities away from belt-tightening coincided with the demise of the Tea Party, the dominant force in the 2010 midterm elections, and the rise of now-former President Trump, who presided over an $8 trillion increase in the national debt.

Now, Republicans are having a tough time generating the same outrage over Biden’s multitrillion-dollar spending agenda as they did over former President Obama’s signature initiatives: the American Relief and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, which cost far less than what Biden is proposing on infrastructure.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said “unfortunately” fiscal concerns are “probably” not as important to the GOP base as 10 years ago and that Trump helped transform the party’s priorities. 

“It wasn’t something that was an important issue for President Trump, and so many of our base voters align themselves with President Trump. It’s almost like now debt, deficits, spending become abstract issues that a lot of folks aren’t paying attention to and should be,” he said. 

There was a “political evolution,” Thune said, and the fiscal conservatism that was a core tenet of the Tea Party “got displaced … by the more populist elements” of the Republican Party.

He went on to say that while Trump was able to energize voters by hitting on hot-button cultural topics, such as immigration and border security, it’s now time for the GOP to get back to its traditional stance on fiscal issues. 

“I’m frankly very concerned about the level of spending and debt, 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,” Thune said. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a central player in the Senate immigration negotiations, said the party is “kind of different” compared to the early years of the Obama administration.

Tea Party fiscal conservatism is now “hard to find,” she said, adding that the party base is “more strongly conservative on some of the social issues.” 

“Who is the party of fiscal restraint anymore?” she asked.

Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized House conservatives in his new book, “On the House: A Washington Memoir,” for abandoning their Tea Party principles during Trump’s four years in office. 

“None of these guys said anything when the Trump administration added $1 trillion to the federal budget deficit by the end of 2019 — before a single dime was spent on COVID-19 relief,” he wrote.

“They were rubber stamps for it in Congress. Many of them who raised huge stinks about [the Troubled Asset Relief Program] were only too happy to let Trump bail out farmers hurt by his trade war with China,” he added, referring to the $700 billion measure that Congress passed in October of 2008 to prop up the nation’s financial system.

The shift in political priorities was even more apparent last month when the House Republican conference voted by secret ballot to lift the ban on earmarks it had enacted in March of 2010, when the Tea Party was on the rise. 

The Senate last week voted to keep a symbolic earmark ban in place with the understanding the GOP conference rule would not be binding and members would be free to request earmarks for their home states.

“Here’s the sad reality: Almost nobody in Washington, Republican or Democrat, cares much about the debt, but lots of grandstanders care a lot about who racks up that debt,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). 

“Most folks are OK with deficits just as long as it’s their party that gets the short-term political advantage of claiming to be saviors shoveling cash. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, the math is the math,” he added.

Sasse brought a chart to a Republican conference meeting Wednesday, during which he and his colleagues discussed allowing earmarks to return, showing the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) now stands at nearly 100 percent and is due to rise to 114 percent by 2030.

That is projected to exceed the record debt-to-GDP ratio set in 1946 after World War II.

The national debt stood at $19.9 trillion when Trump took office in 2017 and hit $28 trillion last month. 

Republicans are trying to revive fiscal concerns as they push back against Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal but are having trouble gaining traction.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this past week touted a $568 billion Republican-proposed infrastructure plan as a “more modest” alternative to Biden’s and warned of the mounting debt. 

“It’s one thing to run up the national debt when you have a hundred-year pandemic but just to keep routinely adding trillions of dollars to the national debt I think is ill-advised for the future of the country,” he said last week.

Republicans want to pay for their plan by repurposing money sent out to state and local governments in Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan, setting user fees and tapping the Highway Trust Fund. 

Yet polls have shown strong support for Biden’s plans to spend trillions of dollars to turbocharge the economy, a course he settled on after Democrats concluded that the $787 billion stimulus package passed in the early months of Obama’s first term did not do enough to get the economy back on track after the Great Recession.

Senior White House adviser Anita Dunn last month circulated a Navigator Research poll showing that 59 percent of Americans support Biden’s infrastructure agenda and that 83 percent support his desire to expand access to child care and investments in clean energy infrastructure, which are not highlighted in the alternative GOP proposal. 

A Politico-Morning Consult poll from this month showed strong support among Republicans, Democrats and independents for Biden’s infrastructure spending priorities, and 65 percent of voters were on board with raising the corporate tax rate to help pay for them. The survey even found that 42 percent of Republicans favored raising taxes on corporations.

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said that Republican warnings of 10 and 12 years ago that Obama’s agenda would fuel inflation never panned out, undercutting the potency of fiscal conservatism as a political message.

“The Republican argument of 2009 that this massive increase in federal spending is going to cause a disastrous inflation, it simply isn’t an argument that holds water with most economists or the general public,” he said. “That’s important context.”

“We never experienced much inflation, still aren’t experiencing much inflation and yet have another economic downturn with massive unemployment and underemployment. And I think the public buys the argument the government has an essential role in recovery,” he added.

The lack of staunch opposition among Republican voters to Biden’s economic agenda makes it trickier for Senate Republicans to oppose, especially when winning back the majority means securing victories in purple states like Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Republicans as a whole — from lawmakers in Washington to mainstream GOP voters and conservative activists — were much more unified against Obama’s health care agenda in 2009 than they are against Biden’s spending plans.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the fact that GOP senators are now “spending serious time putting serious proposals” is a good sign, praising their $568 billion infrastructure offer as “meaningful.” 

“Republicans are not spending their time eviscerating the infrastructure bill like they did the Affordable Care Act. They’re spending their time explaining how they would do it differently, and that’s constructive,” he said, noting the differences between now and 12 years ago.

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags american jobs plan Ben Sasse Boehner Chris Murphy Culture Wars Debt deficit Donald Trump Fiscal conservatism Fiscal policy Government spending Infrastructure Joe Biden John Boehner John Thune Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Tea party

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