A reporter friend writes me to ask a question about my exposés of grifting and deception as the warp and weft of the conservative movement. He tells me he’s trying to write about that story, instead of the clichéd horse-race one about “GOP IN DISARRAY.” But aren’t they the same story? An institution built on a fabric of untruth is not a sustainable institution.
And when it comes to that grander narrative, the metastasizing saga of Dr. Carson and His Magic Cancer-Curing Bark Elixir is only the circus’s sideshow.
Let’s take a look inside the tent. I noted a watershed some years ago. A National Review writer named Kevin Williamson wrote a worried dispatch in 2010 called “Goodbye, Supply Side.” He quoted Rep. Louie Gohmert, boasting (he really did!) about the economic policy triumphs of George W. Bush’s administration. Williamson: “After 9/11, [Gohmert] argues, the United States was headed for a serious recession, even a depression, but tax cuts saved the day––and increased government revenues in the process. ‘With a tax cut, then another tax cut, we stimulated the economy, and record revenue like never before in American history flowed into the United States Treasury,’ he said in a speech before the House. ‘As it turned out, the tax cuts helped create more revenue for the Treasury, not destroy revenue for the Treasury.’ That last bit is fantasy. There is no evidence that the tax cuts on net produced more revenue than the Treasury would have realized without them. That claim could be true—if we were to credit most or all of the economic growth during the period in question to tax cuts, but that is an awfully big claim, one that no serious economist would be likely to entertain. It’s a just-so story, a bedtime fairy tale Republicans tell themselves to shake off fear of the deficit bogeyman. It’s whistling past the fiscal graveyard. But this kind of talk is distressingly unremarkable in Republican political circles.”
I found this conservative’s daring foray into the reality-based community exhilarating. (How did it manage to slip by the National Review editors?) Three years after he wrote it, I tracked him down and asked what happened next: what ripple effects had come from his patient proof that Republican economic dogma was based on a fantasy?
“None,” he replied. Williamson then reflected upon further questioning that, well, some: certain Republican politicians admit privately that he is correct, but “it’s hard to get them to acknowledge it in public because it’s become such a piece of dogma.”
Fast forward to Wednesday’s “Your Money, Your Vote” Republican debate.
Governor George Pataki, in the “kiddie table” debate that preceded the main event: “My plan, the Tax Foundation said, would create five and a half million new jobs over the next decade.”
Rick Santorum, on his flat tax proposal: “Well, if you look at a plan that I introduced, the 20/20 clear vision for America, we increased growth by 10 percent, 1 percent a year. So we go from 2.3 to 3.3.”
Moderator John Harwood, questioning Donald Trump about his tax plan: “You say it would not increase the deficit because [when] you cut taxes $10 trillion, the economy would take off like a rocket ship.” Trump: “Right. Dynamically.” Harwood: “I talked to economic advisers who served presidents of both parties. They said that you have as [much] a chance of cutting taxes that much without increasing the deficit as you would of flying away from the podium by flapping your arms.” Trump: “Then you have to get rid of Larry Kudlow, who sits on your panel, who’s a great guy, who came out one day and said, ‘I love Trump’s tax plan.’”
(Larry Kudlow, um, also exists to manipulate statistics to pretend that tax cuts produce lollypops and rainbows. Wikipedia: “Kudlow . . . served as an economic counsel to A.B. Laffer & Associates, the San Diego, California, company owned by Arthur Laffer, a major supply-side economist and creator of the Laffer Curve, an economic theory tying lower taxation to increased government revenue . . . . He was a member of the board of directors of Empower America, a supply-side economics organization founded in 1993 that merged with the Citizens for a Sound Economy to found FreedomWorks.”)
Dr. Carson on his other magic elixir, a flat-tax rate of 15 percent, after the moderator said it would leave a $1.1 trillion hole in the federal deficit: “We can stimulate the economy. That’s gonna be the real growth engine . . . when we put all the facts down, you’ll be able to see that it’s not true, it works out very well.”
(And also cures cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.)
Senator Cruz interjects: “Becky, if you want a 10 percent flat tax where the numbers add up, I rolled out my tax plan today. . . . The Tax Foundation . . . shows that this plan will allow the economy to generate 4.9 million jobs, to raise wages over 12 percent, and to generate 14 percent growth. . . . Those are the hard numbers.”
(Very hard numbers, considering the highest quarterly growth rate since World War II was 13.4 percent, in the fourth quarter of 1950.)
Jeb: “You don’t have to guess about it, because I actually have a record. Nineteen billion dollars of tax cuts, 1.3 million jobs created.”
There you have it. Step right up! Be amazed, be enchanted, by the magic GOP unicorn-and-rainbow-producing tax cut machine!
It takes a lot of energy to sustain a lie. When enough people do it together, over a sustained period of time, it wears on them. It also produces a certain kind of culture: one cut loose from the norms of fair conduct and trust that any organization requires in order to survive as something more than a daily, no-holds-barred war of all against all. A battle royale. A circus, if you prefer.
And the act in the center ring? The Amazing Death Spiral. One performer does something so outrageous that anyone else who wishes to further hold the audience’s attention has to match or top it––even if they know it’s insane. Listen to the warning of the one guy who dares grab the ringmaster’s microphone and say that if this keeps on going everyone will end up dead. That’s what poor old John Kasich did. Hear him cry about his “great concern that we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job. I’ve watched people say that we should dismantle Medicare and Medicaid. . . . I’ve heard them talking about deporting 10 or 11 [million] people from this country. . . . I’ve heard about tax schemes that don’t add up.”
And what happened to him? Read the snap poll from Gravis research. Only 3 percent of Republicans thought he won the debate. (First place was Trump with 26.7; second was Rubio with 21.1; third was Cruz with 17.3; and fourth was Ben Carson with 12.5.) Only 2.4 percent said they would vote for Kasich for president. When the clowns are running the show, of course it’s going to be in disarray.
Photo Credit: Chuck Coker
Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.