Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cruise control

There's an urban legend that you can find at about an elderly couple driving an RV. The woman is in the back, making a sandwich, and she sees her husband walking back to join her. "Who's driving the RV?" she asks. "Oh, don't worry," her husband answers, "I've got it on cruise control." Shortly afterward the RV crashes.

I was reminded of that story when I was reading this article in Time magazine by Michael Grunwald called "Republicans in Distress". Grunwald writes:

Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a conservative who keeps a bust of Reagan on his desk, surprised me by declaring that the Reagan era is over. "Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts," he said. "The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set." [Maine Senator Olympia] Snowe recalls that when she proposed fiscally conservative "triggers" to limit Bush's tax cuts in case of deficits, she was attacked by fellow Republicans. "I don't know when willy-nilly tax cuts became the essence of who we are," she says.

The answer to Senator Snowe's question, I think, can be found in the presidency of the first George Bush. Probably Bush's best-known quote came from his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican Convention: "Read my lips: no new taxes." Faced with a growing budget deficit, by 1990 Bush had to raise taxes, enraging most of the GOP and leading to Pat Buchanan's primary challenge and Bush's eventual loss to Bill Clinton. The lesson Republicans took from Bush's loss was "never raise taxes", and as the GOP has become more extreme, "never raise taxes" has become "always cut taxes".

Like the elderly couple in the urban legend, the Republicans have put their tax cut mania on cruise control. And like the elderly couple, the Republicans are going to find out that cruise control isn't the same as autopilot. The result of their misunderstanding is going to be a political party on the side of the road, resting on its roof with its wheels spinning in the air.

No comments: