The following was originally published in Politico.
Republicans dub their congressional challengers the Young Guns, who proclaim a reborn conservative fealty to balanced budgets, small government and free markets. At the same time, their campaigns are fueled by what The Washington Post calls a “frenzy” of special-interest money, a tsunami of independent expenditures, many anonymous but most coming, per the Post, from “a relatively small number of rich donors — oil and gas industry chief executives, construction magnates and other tycoons.”
President Barack Obama’s reforms sparked tea party opposition to Big Government. But they also aroused Big Oil, King Coal, Big Pharma, Wall Street, the health insurance industry and corporations whose subsidies, regulatory fixes and tax loopholes were threatened. Much ire was ignited by the bailout of Wall Street and General Motors, even as small businesses were left on their own. But big banks, drug firms and oil companies are mobilizing to protect their privileges. The Young Guns railing against government corruption are funded by industries at the heart of it.
This year, Republican Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Kevin McCarthy of California published “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” presenting themselves as a new generation of reborn conservatives. It’s a slick public relations concept with severe truth-in-packaging problems. In politics, “young” is a euphemism for middle-aged.
The book tells of conservative triumph, fall and redemption. Conservatives came to clean up Washington in 1994 and “did much good.” Then they “lost their way,” began to “spend the taxpayers’ money like teenagers with their parents’ credit card” and grew infamous for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” leading to the Democratic revival. After their fall, they rediscovered their conservative faith and rallied to challenge Big Government spending and call America back to its values.
The test of their faith, they say, is their opposition to earmarks, “a symbol of the problem of Washington.” Really? If so, the Young Guns’ new devotion didn’t even survive to Election Day. The GOP “Pledge to America” promises to clean up Washington and cut spending but doesn’t mention earmarks. Cantor now says Republicans will keep earmarks, but theirs will be based on “merit, not on muscle.”
But muscle, not merit, is fueling many GOP campaigns. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pledged to spend an unprecedented $75 million from anonymous corporate donors at home and abroad. Karl Rove, the political strategist many conservatives scorned as the Lucifer of Big Government Republicanism, has pledged to spend $50 million with the Crossroads operations. Some of this lucre comes from ideological conservatives who support the GOP defense of top-end tax cuts and opposition to the estate tax. Much of it, however, comes from corporations with a stake in Big Government subsidies, regulatory and tax loopholes and the “corruption” conservatives pledge to clean up.
Health care is a classic example. Under Rove’s guidance, Republicans passed a prescription drug bill to appeal to seniors. Drug companies pocketed billions under the law’s provision that prohibited Medicare from negotiating bulk price discounts on prescriptions. Not a word appears in “Young Guns” or the Republican pledge about this outrage — one that survived Obama’s health care reform as part of the deal to keep drug companies from fighting it. (The $1.1 trillion cost over the next 10 years of the Medicare prescription program, according to the Congressional Budget Office, adds more to the deficit than the combined costs of the bank bailout, the stimulus and the health care law.)
The centerpiece of the Republican pledge is a promise to extend the extra Bush tax cut that goes to those making more than $250,000 a year, to repeal what is left in the Obama recovery act and to cut “nonsecurity domestic discretionary spending” by $100 billion next year. The top-end tax cut alone is projected to cost $700 billion over 10 years, expending most of what could be saved by the spending cuts.
But will the cuts happen? That would require taking more than 20 percent from the Departments of Education, Transportation, Energy, Commerce and the Interior, threatening the billions in government subsidies that the oil and coal, timber and mining, construction and educational testing industries get.
Meanwhile, the Republican pledge promises more incentives for domestic energy of all kinds.
Small-government conservatives also promise more deregulation — and, as we’ve seen, entrenched interests can make this costly. Oil companies combined lax regulation of offshore drilling with laws that limit their liability. Wall Street lobbied to push the banking deregulation that contributed to the economic collapse.
This contradiction between conservative ideology and corporate interest lies at the heart of the repeated conservative failure to reduce the size of government. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the power of corporate lobbies to limit liberal reform. The tidal wave of special-interest money supporting Republicans in this election suggests those same interests are likely to be just as effective in frustrating small-government conservatives.