Ross Douthat is something of a punchline at Crooked Timber . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network[^1]). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.
In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.
By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.
Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.
This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.
Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.
But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.
It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.
And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.
It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.
[^1]: Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.