As negotiations over the fiscal cliff drag on (and on), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is facing criticism for refusing to specify what exactly would go on the chopping block in his proposed $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. President Obama hasn't outlined any specific cuts either, though he has at least made clear that he would raise revenue by hiking tax rates for the wealthy. That is one side of the equation, and reflects a Democratic priority; cutting spending would naturally seem to be in the GOP's wheelhouse.
There are several theories for why Boehner is being so demure. Brian Montopoli at CBS News says Boehner wants Obama to take the heat for proposing unpopular cuts to Medicare. Jonathan Chait at New York takes the argument a little further, saying that, despite Republican assertions to the contrary, there just aren't that many cuts to be had: "When the only cuts on the table would inflict real harm on people with modest incomes and save small amounts of money, that is a sign that there's just not much money to save." And Paul Krugman at The New York Times goes epic, linking Boehner's reticence to the death of a 30-year conservative project to end "the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society":
From the beginning, however, these ideologues have had a big problem: The programs they want to kill are very popular. Americans may nod their heads when you attack big government in the abstract, but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. So what’s a radical to do?
The answer, for a long time, has involved two strategies. One is "starve the beast," the idea of using tax cuts to reduce government revenue, then using the resulting lack of funds to force cuts in popular social programs. Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug.
Arguably more important in conservative thinking, however, was the notion that the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely.
With that voter base waning in influence, Krugman argues, the GOP has entered "the death throes of the conservative dream."
Conservatives obviously disagree with that liberal characterization of their movement, though Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal agrees that the GOP is perilously close to death:
I say these obvious things — and yes, they are all obvious — because in a small thread of party thinkers I belong to someone recently used the phrase "if the Republicans can change." I was startled. I said of course they'll change, all things that are alive want not to die, if Republicans don't change they'll die, so they'll change. This was greeted with a certain kindhearted skepticism, which struck me because they're all very smart and have worked in the trenches. Someone said, "I wish I shared your optimism." I didn't know I was being optimistic, I thought I was just being realistic…
Republicans are now in the habit of editing their views, and they've been in it for 10 years. The Bush White House suppressed dissent; talk radio stars functioned as enforcers; the angrier parts of the base, on the internet, attempted to silence critical thinkers. Orthodoxy was everything, or orthodoxy as some defined it.
This isn't loyalty, it's lockstep. It has harmed the party's creativity, its ability to think, when now more than ever it has to. Enough.