Congratulations to whoever had "less than two months" in the "conservative overreach" betting pool. There was never a question about whether the Republican Party, awarded huge political gains last year by voters, would let ideology outstrip political reality. The issue was when. And the new faces of conservative overreach have been preening recently.
Here is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who sparked an old-fashioned national labor controversy by trying to break his state's public unions. His assertion that he's merely trying to achieve fiscal responsibility is belied by the fact that while rolling back government workers' collective bargaining rights itself saves no money, the tax cut he pushed through upon taking office costs an amount strikingly similar to this year's budget gap; and the fact that when the unions offered to accede to his budget demands in exchange for keeping their bargaining rights, the governor wouldn't accept that "yes" for an answer. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should public sector workers have collective bargaining rights?]
Indeed, while he has tried to imbue his power grab with the voters' imprimatur by claiming that union-busting was part of his campaign agenda (it was not), Walker, speaking with a liberal blogger pretending to be billionaire supporter David Koch, described the actual unveiling of the policy as akin to dropping a "bomb." In that same call, he added a phrase to the lexicon of overreach. "This is our moment," he told faux-Koch, "this is our time to change the course of history." [See photos of the Wisconsin protests.]
Away from Wisconsin, members of the Tea Party Patriots, meeting in Phoenix recently, gave that sentiment more guttural voice. When Texas GOP Rep. Joe Barton tried to brag that the $61 billion in spending cuts the House recently passed were the "largest . . . in the history of America," they booed him, shouting "More, more!" One Tea Partyer told the Associated Press that she and her fellow activists were displeased with the House GOP for failing to follow through on their campaign pledge to slice $100 billion from government outlays this year: "Have we seen that? No. But we've heard excuses." Another warned, "If they don't [live up to their promises], we're going to pull up another candidate to run against them." Why shouldn't they? This is their moment. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
That even the conservative House Republicans are unable to conjure more than $61 billion shows both the hollowness of their $100 billion campaign pledge and the governing corner into which they have painted themselves. And, the Tea Party activists will no doubt be pained to learn, negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats won't get them any closer.
Not for lack of trying, to be sure. Congressional Republicans have demonstrated an unstinting commitment to an economic philosophy that can best be described as cutting for cutting's sake. It's certainly not for the sake of fiscal responsibility. The same party that brought you the Reagan budget deficits and Bush budget deficits certainly speaks the language of fiscal responsibility. But Republicans concern themselves only with the spending side of the ledger, perhaps forgetting that deficits come not from spending in isolation but when spending and revenue are out of balance. [See political cartoons about the budget and deficit.]
So they piously speak of dealing with the deficit with their $61 billion in proposed cuts (or even the $100 billion Tea Party standard) while trying to repeal President Obama's healthcare reform law, a move that would add more than $200 billion to the deficit over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And all of those numbers are dwarfed by the $4 trillion hole they would blow over 10 years if they successfully managed to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. [See a slide show of 10 looming budget and spending fights between Obama and the Congress.]
And they're not focused, campaign rhetoric aside, on jobs. A recent Goldman Sachs report estimated that the $61 billion in spending cuts that the House GOP passed would reduce economic growth by 1.5 to 2 percentage points. This would not help spur job growth. Moody's analyst Mark Zandi (who has advised both parties) weighed in last week with an estimate that the Republican spending cuts "would mean some 400,000 fewer jobs created by the end of 2011 and 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of 2012." And last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put that number at "a couple of hundred thousand jobs," adding, "It's not trivial." [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]
In other words, the Republicans' spending cuts legislation is the very definition of, to borrow their phrase, a job-killing bill. And the Tea Party gang doesn't think it goes far enough. Is the GOP really willing to sacrifice economic growth at the altar of their cutting obsession? Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the George W. Bush budget director-turned-spending hawk, was asked on NPR whether budget cuts are worth it if they cost a lot of jobs. "The answer is yes," he said.
This view bespeaks the kind of market fundamentalism the Tea Party GOP has embraced. It involves a blind faith in the free market: cut taxes, gut regulations, cut spending, gut labor unions. The market is always right. And if that means the loss of a few hundred thousand jobs, then, in the instantly immortal words of House Speaker John Boehner, "So be it."
But the GOP has gotten so lost in its own philosophy that they have made the mistake of believing their own rhetoric about the United States being ideologically conservative. It is surely true that the electorate prefers a government that is in some senses limited; but so too do they want the free market limited, its rough edges softened. [See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]
It may be, in Governor Walker's words, their moment. But overreaching conservatives will learn that the more tightly they embrace it, the more quickly it will pass. In self-consciously trying to change history, they will become it.