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

The GOP's Real Agenda, Tim Dickinson, Issue 1179
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
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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.

THE DEFICIT: HYSTERICAL AUSTERITY

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.

As a result of the GOP's refusal to negotiate in good faith, America is now being subjected to austerity-by-a-thousand-cuts. Budgetary sadists like Paul Ryan will delight in the sequester's blows to vital anti-poverty programs: $285 million a year from heating assistance to keep the poor from freezing to death in their own homes. Another $543 million will be cut from nutrition assistance – throwing as many as 750,000 at-risk kids and moms out of the WIC program. California and Texas alone likely will be forced to lay off more than 2,000 teachers – leaving some 350,000 students in the lurch. Tens of thousands of preschoolers will be kicked out of Head Start.

Yet for all the pain they cause, these cuts will do little to balance the budget. As Fed chairman Ben Bernanke testified to Congress, "If you slow the economy, that hurts your revenues, and that means your deficit reduction is not as big as you think it is." Worse for a nation still mired in eight percent unemployment, Bernanke said, "This will cost a lot of jobs in the short run." The impact is particularly brutal for jurisdictions whose economies are dependent on federal and military contracts. Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are poised to lose a combined 450,000 jobs – double the losses projected for a megastate like California.

Some Republicans have attempted to blame the president for the pain caused by the "Obamaquester." But for the big bosses of the conservative movement, the true problem is that its cuts don't go far enough. Pointing to a right-wing think tank slamming the sequester as "insignificant," the GOP's anti-tax Svengali, Grover Norquist, snarked, "Ouch. Ouch. I cannot stand these 'meat cleaver' cuts in sequestration. Chain-saw massacre stuff."

TAX CUTS: STARVE THE STATES

Controlling only one-half of Congress, the Republicans can do little more than play defense by creating a deadlock in Washington. But with 24 statehouses now run by Republican governors and GOP-majority legislatures, the party is turning the states into laboratories for radical conservative governance.

In recent years, the GOP has sent talent from Congress back home to pursue its cruel economic agenda. From Louisiana to Kansas to Indiana, Republican governors with congressional pedigrees are working to slash state income and corporate taxes that hit the wealthiest – often calling on the working poor to make up the difference by paying higher sales taxes. In Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence – until 2010 the number-three Republican in the House leadership – has asked the legislature to squander a rare surplus by passing an "across-the-board tax cut" that heavily favors the rich: Twenty-eight percent of benefits would go to the top five percent of earners. One in three low-income Hoosiers would see no tax cut at all.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to abolish income and corporate taxes – financing the giveaway by increasing the flat tax on purchases. Jindal claims the proposal "will put more money back into the pockets of Louisiana families." That's a lie. Taxes on the poorest 20 percent would rise nearly $400 a year in order to lower taxes on the top one percent by $25,000.

In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator, is trying to pull off the same boondoggle with the backing of powerful allies – the billionaire Koch brothers, whose Koch Industries is based in Wichita, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, a corporate front group that pushes right-wing policy across state legislatures. Brownback began his tax-cutting in 2012 by eliminating the state business tax and slashing the state income tax, promising that these cuts would act like "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy."

Instead, the state is on track to pile up $2.5 billion in debt by 2018, yet Brownback is still calling on the legislature to whittle away at income tax rates – which he declares are on a "glide path to zero" – even if that requires higher sales taxes. Thanks to the Koch brothers, Brownback enjoys a rubber-stamp legislature. Koch campaign cash in the past election put hardcore conservatives in control of both chambers; a board member of ALEC is now speaker of the Kansas House. If Brownback's latest cuts go forward, Kansas' $6 billion general fund will have been slashed by $1.1 billion a year, giving millionaires a tax cut of $28,000. "The magical growth model that the governor talks about only exists for the wealthiest Kansans who benefit from his tax plan," said Terry Forsyth, president of the Working Kansas Alliance.

VOTING RIGHTS: RIG THE SYSTEM

Republicans are painfully aware that a demographic tide has turned against them and that even turnout-suppressing voter-ID laws couldn't block the re-election of a Democrat to the White House in 2012. So party officials have become even more audacious in their plans to steal elections – this time by rigging the Electoral College itself.

The Electoral College is almost exclusively winner-take-all: The top popular vote-getter in Florida, for example, receives all 29 electoral votes. To benefit future GOP nominees, however, Republicans from blue-trending battleground states are seeking to divvy up their states' Electoral College bounty. These ploys are nothing more than dirty politics – and even GOP leaders admit it. "It's something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at," said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, making clear that the strategy to reapportion Electoral College votes is appropriate only for strategically important swing states, not for Texas or Georgia.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans have introduced a bill to split Electoral College votes proportionally – a plan that would have robbed Obama of eight of the state's 20 votes in 2012. In Michigan, the state GOP has endorsed a plan to award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. Because those districts were themselves gerrymandered by Republican politicians, this plan would have awarded Mitt Romney a majority of the Electoral College votes from Michigan – a state he lost by nearly 10 percent.

These state measures pale in comparison with a case now being weighed by the Supreme Court. Conservatives are hoping to nullify a bedrock provision of the Voting Rights Act, the law that brought democracy to the American South. "Section 5" of the 1965 law – renewed almost unanimously by Congress in 2006 – gives the Justice Department oversight of elections and redistricting in nine mostly Southern states. The suit is backed by the Koch-founded Cato Institute, which declared in a friend-of-the-court brief that "three generations of federal intrusion have been more than enough to kill Jim Crow. . . . Without the threat of federal interference, would state legislatures feel free to engage in mischief? It seems wildly improbable, even in the Deep South."

During oral arguments in February, the hard-right majority on the Supreme Court appeared receptive to this line of attack – which is not surprising. As a young attorney in the Reagan Justice Department, the current chief justice, John Roberts, wrote legal briefs challenging the constitutionality of the VRA. And in the February proceedings, Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia slammed the law that guarantees the franchise to all Americans as a "racial entitlement."

The recent history of the Deep South proves that racially discriminatory mischief is still with us. In Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry decries Section 5 as having been "unconstitutionally extended," the Justice Department used the provision to block a voter-ID law that could have disenfranchised some 600,000 duly registered voters – most of them black and Latino. (The law endorsed a conceal-carry gun permit as acceptable ID for voting but deemed student and even state worker IDs invalid.)

The Lone Star State also violated the Voting Rights Act in its congressional redistricting. A panel of three federal judges decried the "discriminatory intent" displayed by state legislators who had carved job-creating commercial centers out of majority African-American districts and redrawn the lines of at least one Hispanic-dominant district to "strengthen the voting power of . . . Anglo citizens."

GLOBAL WARMING: DENY, DENY, DENY

The Republican party also remains committed to violence against the environment. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has jurisdiction over global-warming research, has been stacked with hardcore deniers like California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who once blamed climate change on "dinosaur flatulence," and Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, a creationist who blasts science – "all that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, big-bang theory" – as "lies straight from the pit of hell."

The committee is chaired by Texan Lamar Smith, who has taken more than $500,000 in oil money during his political career and recently received a $10,000 check from Koch Industries. In one of his first moves as chairman, Smith planned a hearing about giving global-warming skeptics a congressional platform in a House "review" of climate science – only to have it postponed because of a severe storm.

In the states, Kansas is poised to join Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas in passing ALEC-sponsored legislation mandating that schools teach the "scientific controversies" of climate science. In South Carolina, conservatives have suppressed publication for more than a year of a study predicting dire global-warming impacts in the state – which reportedly include flooded homes, shriveling wetlands, ocean dead zones, and an invasion of piranhas and Asian swamp eels. For his part, Sen. Rubio in Florida doubts whether humans are driving climate change and believes we should just let it ravage the planet in any case: "We can pass a bunch of laws that will destroy our economy," he said, "but it isn't going to change the weather."

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: DECLARE WAR ON WOMEN

In Republican politics, limited government ends at a woman's vagina. Early this year, the GOP-controlled legislature of Arkansas passed a bill outlawing abortion after just 12 weeks' gestation, a law "designed to dial the clock back 40 years," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. The measure was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who decried it as "blatantly" unconstitutional – under Supreme Court precedent a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy before at least 22 weeks. But in March, the state legislature voted to override the veto, enacting the most restrictive abortion law in the nation – and setting up a certain court challenge that may tempt the Roberts court to reconsider Roe v. Wade.

Republican legislatures across the country are also pushing bills that would force a woman to be penetrated by a dildonic-ultrasound wand before she can legally terminate her pregnancy. A similar bill in Virginia last year became synonymous with the Republican party's "War on Women" – a PR fiasco that contributed to the loss of at least two Senate seats. But state Republicans are unabashed in supporting ultrasound mandates: "This bill is a priority," said Scott Fitzgerald, Republican state senate leader in Wisconsin. "It is long overdue."

In Indiana, lawmakers have sought to punish women seeking access to the abortion pill RU-486 by forcing them to undergo not one but two ultrasound penetrations. Public outcry forced the legislature to reduce the ultrasound mandate to one. "This bill is about politics, not women's health or safety," said Betty Cockrum, president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana. "Statehouse politicians need to get out of our doctors' offices."

THE SAFETY NET: SCREW THE WORKING POOR

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of Obama-​care last year also gave states the right to opt out of an expansion of Medicaid – the joint state-federal insurance program – to cover the working poor.

A few high-profile Republican governors, including Rick Scott of Florida and Christie in New Jersey, have embraced this Medicaid expansion as a sweetheart deal: The federal government will pay all costs for new enrollees for three years, ponying up 90 percent thereafter. But other GOP leaders who despise government are content to put the health of millions at risk rather than sacrifice ideology.

Rick Perry in Texas – who calls Social Security a "disease" – is refusing to expand Medicaid, claiming it would "threaten even Texas with financial ruin." In fact, Perry is looking a gift horse in the mouth. The feds would give the state $100 billion over a decade to cover nearly 2 million residents, while requiring just $15 billion in state matching funds. Perry's prominent peers include Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who count among the nearly 20 GOP leaders who so far have refused to expand coverage.

Even the Republicans' best efforts to demonstrate that the party is moving forward have backfired. The Violence Against Women Act expired in 2011, and Republican obstructionism blocked its reauthorization. After the election, GOP leaders were desperate to put the issue behind them. But to pass VAWA in February, Speaker Boehner had to suspend normal House rules, which require a majority of the majority party to pass a bill, and team up with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to reauthorize the law. In all, 160 House and Senate members voted against the act – all of them Republicans.

If this is the "new" Republican party, it looks even more radical than your father's, or even your grandfather's. A leading new face on the party's right flank – Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – recalls a famous 1950s Republican right down to the crook in his nose. Channeling Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Cruz has declared Barack Obama to be "the most radical" president in our history, adding that Obama was educated at Harvard Law School by "Marxists" who, Cruz insists, "believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government."

It may be tempting to believe that danger posed by the GOP's lunatic fringe is cabined off in the House and the states of the Great Flyover. But 2014 is already looming, and vulnerable Democrats will be contesting Senate seats in red states from Alaska to Arkansas and Louisiana to South Dakota, as well as in hotly contested battlegrounds like Virginia and North Carolina. Flip just six seats, and the GOP will control Congress – and set the agenda of the last two years of the Obama administration. Here's hoping that when the next wave of Todd Akins or Richard Mourdocks charge onto the scene – mouthing off about "legitimate rape" or the latest Tea Party cause célèbre, that the American body politic has the good sense to shut that whole thing down.

This story is from the March 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1179: March 28, 2013