The moment is already receding into a hazy, Youtube past, eclipsed by news of Texas Governor Rick Perry eating a vegetarian corn dog and other spectacles. Yet it's worth recalling, and possibly even spending a few seconds examining, what occurred last week on a stage in Ames, Iowa. All eight Republican candidates appearing at the Fox News debate on August 11 were asked if they would accept a budget deal that trades $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. All eight raised their hands to signal they would oppose such a deal.
Liberals were predictably appalled, but even some conservatives were stunned by the lockstep opposition. At Commentary's blog, Peter Wehner wrote that "if taxes cannot be raised under any circumstance -- then we have veered from economic policy to religious catechism." Over at National Review's blog, Kevin Williamson concluded: "Chalk one up to the crazies."
That has generally been the liberal response to recent Republican pronouncements that seem dubious even by conservative standards. (See debt-ceiling brinksmanship, support for ethanol and oil subsidies, opposition to Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction, abandonment of cap-and-trade, demonization of RomneyCare, etc.) Yet when eight accomplished, apparently rational, leaders, all finely attuned to political risk and reward, say they would torpedo a near-perfect deal that achieves the party's avowed goals of deficit reduction and smaller government, something more than "crazy" must be at work.
One possible explanation comes from Thomas B. Edsall, whose The Age of Scarcity will be published by Doubleday in January. In the New Republic last fall, Edsall wrote:
With resources shrinking, the competition for them will inflame. Each party will find itself in a death struggle to protect the resources that flow to its base -- and, since the game will be zero-sum, each will attempt to expropriate the resources that flow to the other side.
Under a model of political compromise in which each party attempts to get the best outcome it can, with the two sides meeting somewhere near the middle, the 10-1 formula represents a total triumph for Republicans. Under Edsall's model -- essentially civil war by other means -- holding an absolute line on taxes may be worth it to protect Republican constituencies and make sure that the other guys shoulder all the pain.
It's hard to believe that any of the Republicans in Ames wouldn't embrace a 10-1 deal as President. But it's a little alarming that, having surveyed the mood of the Republican base, all eight reached the same conclusion: Even a 10-1 deal is beyond the Republican Party's current capacity for compromise. There have been moments in American history when domestic compromise was deemed by one group or another to be beyond the pale. I can't think of any that were good.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)