The GOP's Real Agenda

Since last fall, Republicans have pretended to be more moderate - but their politics are harsher and more destructive than ever

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
March 13, 2013 1:45 PM ET

After watching voters punish the GOP in the 2012 elections, Republican elites have been talking a brave game about reforms that would make the party less repulsive to Latinos, women and gay-friendly millennials. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the GOP's hip-hop-quoting young standard-bearer, is pressing conservatives to back an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Dozens of party stalwarts, headlined by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, renounced their opposition to gay marriage in a Supreme Court brief. GOP bigwigs have even launched New Republican – a group modeled after Bill Clinton's centrist Democratic Leadership Council – which seeks to rebrand the party as "colorblind," "not anti-government" and dedicated to "ending corporate welfare."

How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich

Don't be fooled. On the ground, a very different reality is unfolding: In the Republican-led Congress, GOP-dominated statehouses and even before the nation's highest court, the reactionary impulses of the Republican Party appear unbowed. Across the nation, the GOP's severely conservative agenda – which seeks to impose job-killing austerity, to roll back voting and reproductive rights, to deprive the working poor of health care, and to destroy agencies that protect the environment from industry and consumers from predatory banks – is moving forward under full steam.

The hardcore rump of the party is even working to punish moderate outliers like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – the party's most popular leader – who was denied a speaking role at the conservative movement's annual convention, CPAC. Today's GOP may desperately need to remake itself as "culturally modern, environmentally responsible and economically inclusive," argues David Frum, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House, but it remains, he says, in the throes of a "Tea Party tantrum."

As it works to lock in as many retrograde policies as possible before it finally chooses to either modernize or die, the Republican Party is like a wounded beast: Rarely has it been more dangerous.


In the Tea Party narrative, president Obama is a reckless socialist spending America into oblivion. In reality, the president has governed like an old-school Republican. Despite having taken heroic measures to rescue the economy in 2009, Obama has presided over the slowest expansion of federal spending since Eisenhower – and repeatedly offered to help Republicans slash the social safety net as part of a "grand bargain" that would restore the nation to fiscal balance.

Thanks to a rebounding tax base and the nearly $1 trillion in budget cuts that both parties agreed to in the first phase of the debt-ceiling deal, the deficit, entering 2013, was shrinking at a faster clip than at any time since the peace dividend after WWII. Federal outlays on both guns and butter were on a path to hit postwar lows as a percentage of gross domestic product by the end of Obama's second term.

But for anti-government Republicans, simple belt-tightening isn't enough. Since 2009, the party has fetishized the kind of draconian cuts to social services that have been practiced in Europe in recent years – and that have failed spectacularly to revive economies there. And today, with the imposition of the sequester – $1.2 trillion in across-the-board budget cuts divided between domestic and military expenditures – the Republicans have finally succeeded in bringing shock-and-awe austerity to America.

The sequester was born of Republican recklessness – a fixture of the debt-reduction package that the House GOP secured in 2011 after threatening to push the United States into default. In theory, neither party wanted these cuts. They were designed to be so politically toxic that lawmakers would be forced to work out a smarter mix of new revenue and targeted spending reductions.

During the "fiscal cliff" negotiations that opened 2013, President Obama laid out a fix to the sequester mess, limiting domestic and defense spending cuts to $200 billion. He sought to make up the difference by leveraging government purchasing power to reap $400 billion in health-care savings and banked another $200 billion by ending waste in farm subsidies and other "mandatory" spending. Obama rounded out his proposal by demanding sacrifice both from the wealthiest – limiting tax deductions and loopholes for the rich – and from future retirees, trimming Social Security payouts by adjusting the way Washington measures inflation. Twenty years ago, this is the kind of self-negotiated proposal that might have been floated by Republican Sen. Bob Dole. But the party of Eric Cantor and John Boehner reacted as if it had been proposed by Hugo Chávez.

The GOP House's counterproposal lurched into even greater Tea Party extremism. A budget bill passed in December by the House would have protected defense contractors by restoring all Pentagon spending and delivered the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction on the broken backs and empty stomachs of low-income Americans – hollowing out social programs, decimating food-stamp benefits, even abolishing Meals on Wheels for hundreds of thousands of hungry seniors. Speaker Boehner praised his caucus for endorsing these "common-sense cuts."

Underscoring the priorities of today's GOP, their plan also contained a huge giveaway to reckless Wall Street speculators by eliminating the funding necessary for the government to shutter huge financial institutions. The bill also would have given Congress the ability to zero out the budget for the hated Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency brought to life by Elizabeth Warren that protects homeowners and credit-card holders from the abuses of predatory lenders.

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