The political impossibility of the Ryan-Romney budget

You are better off believing in the tooth fairy than the Republican pair's economic strategy.

Pain has no political constituency.

This fundamental rule of American politics (and democratic systems more generally) points up the difficulty of enacting or sustaining public policies that leave large numbers of citizens worse off. Politicians dread casting votes on legislation that will impose costs on any significant group of constituents, lest the opposition seize on the issue in the next election. Austerity policies typically spell defeat for the political party or coalition that imposes them (see Greece). Given the political consequences of inflicting pain, many of the key budget prescriptions embodied in the budget plan developed by Representative Paul Ryan and now effectively endorsed by Mitt Romney will never be realized in practice.

Political parties that run on a “cod liver oil” platform face a critical obstacle on the campaign trail. They can always be undersold in the competition for votes by other parties that offer voters instead the proverbial spoonful of sugar. The political challenge entailed by recommending policies that promise pain becomes more acute if the danger that the pain is designed to avert lies far off in the future.

In 1984, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale vividly demonstrated the lesson that pain is a losing political proposition. He believed that the American people would accept the hard truth that tax increases were the only solution to the large federal deficit generated by the tax cuts pushed through by the Reagan administration. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he delivered the bad news directly:

“Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up….Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s candor earned him no credit among the American people. With barely 40 per cent of the popular vote, he lost 49 states. (If Reagan had decided to campaign in Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, the Democrat might have lost all fifty.)

Another episode from the Reagan era demonstrates a more palatable approach to allocating pain. In 1981, recognizing that Social Security would soon face a short-term funding shortfall, Reagan appointed a bipartisan group, the National Commission on Social Security Reform (called the Greenspan Commission after its chair, Alan Greenspan) to review the program and its finances. The commission recommended a series of changes that included increased taxes and reduced benefits. Congress in 1983 approved recommendations that yielded $168bn to assure that the program would remain solvent. The solution set borrowed from both parties, including increasing in the retirement age and raising the payroll tax ceiling on higher income workers. Importantly, the commission gave both parties political cover, and the bipartisan support effectively removed the issue from the 1984 campaign.

But the conditions that made possible the 1983 compromise have proven harder to replicate over time. Barack Obama sought to lay the groundwork for a similar bipartisan approach when he appointed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (usually referred to after its co-chairs as Simpson-Bowles). Rather than embrace the report, however, lawmakers in both parties shunned it. Among the obstacles were a more sharply polarized political context and the lack of urgency inherent in the underlying problem. Any long-term debt crisis involves a distant threat, quite unlike the immediate problems facing Social Security in the early 1980s.

If we apply the lessons from these episodes to the Ryan budget, certain conclusions follow. First, so long as the Democrats control one of the main policy branches of the national government (the White House, the Senate, or the House), the plan will go nowhere. Indeed, that is the best of all worlds for the GOP, because then Republicans don’t have to answer for the consequences. Second, were the Republicans to sweep the 2012 elections, they might enact the features of the plan attractive to their core constituents — cutting discretionary expenditures for the poor and lowering taxes. The result would be a larger federal deficit and a worsening of the future debt problem. Third, Republican lawmakers would likely defer proposed changes in Medicare and changes in the tax code (such as eliminating popular deductions) intended to offset tax cuts. These unpopular moves would leave them politically vulnerable in 2014. To enact them could spell a quick farewell to majority status for the GOP.

Republicans know this. Many are already scared to run on the Ryan scheme to replace traditional Medicare for those under the age of 55 with vouchers that cannot possibly cover the same level of services. That Medicare poses a danger to the federal government’s solvency as baby boomers retire may be true, but proposing to slash Medicare spending still makes for bad politics. (And the Republican ticket appreciates the politics, too, witness the Romney-Ryan attack on Obamacare for allegedly cutting Medicare.) Nor will the Republicans’ Orwellian efforts to package the reform as a plan to protect and enhance Medicare work. In a contested information environment, efforts to reframe the terms of debate don’t work.

The same holds for the unspecified revenue increases that the Ryan plan expects to realize from reforming the tax code. At a time when the federal government already takes in much less than it spends, the GOP budget formula seeks lower tax rates and an end to taxes on capital gains. The plan in its pure form offers more than $4trn in tax cuts over the next decade. Finding the revenue to offset such a loss runs afoul of political reality at every turn. End the home mortgage interest deduction? The one for state and local taxes? How about putting a stop to charitable deductions? These moves amount to political suicide. Yet nothing less could close the gap between revenues and expenditures entailed by the Ryan budget (or the Romney tax plan proposed during the primaries).

In the end, then, the politics of pain mean that anything resembling the Ryan-Romney budget approach will become another exercise in supply-side economics — the discredited faith that cutting taxes sharply enough will generate so much economic growth that total revenues will increase. The Republicans can deliver the tax cuts and some spending reductions targeted at the most vulnerable, who are also the least organized and powerful in our politics. But for those who think the Ryan budget represents a serious approach to the long-term federal debt problem, believing in the tooth fairy is a better bet.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. This post originally appeared on the OUP blog here.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan arrive at a campaign rally in Powell, Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage