The first rule of Starving the Beast is you do not mention “Starving the Beast”
April 18, 2011 by William K. Wolfrum
There was nothing the least bit brave about Paul Ryan’s GOP budget that would slash the social safety net and enrich the already rich. Ryan’s work – like all his work – is partisan cowardice based on a long-held Conservative strategy – Starve the Beast.
Of course, this is not something you can speak of in polite conversation. As an Andrew Sullivan reader pointed out to him:
Indeed, it is the culmination of about a thirty year Republican strategy called “starve the beast,” by which Republicans have worked to reduce taxes and increase the national deficit as large as possible – all to create the supposed “deficit crisis” that we now face and to use that crisis to eliminate programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a slew of other programs (EPA, SEC, Planned Parenthood, collective bargaining, etc.) that the Republican class has never been able to eliminate through the democratic process. This “starve the beast” Republican strategy has been openly acknowledged for years and I know you are well aware of it. And the Ryan “budget plan” is transparently an attempt to cash in on this long-standing political agenda.
So, frankly, why is there no acknowledgment by you of this?
Sullivan, of course, was not having anything to do with that line of argument, and, in fact, completely avoided discussing it in his response:
There is, in as much as I have detailed my objections to a budget balancing plan that raises no new revenues. But the proposals on Medicare and Medicaid would undoubtedly cut costs over the long run, and would obviously inflict sacrifice on many Americans. That’s why I remain of the view that the debate kicked off by Ryan is a good thing, because for the first time, the GOP has essentially owned and fessed up to the human costs of fiscal reform. From Reagan to W, with the great exception of George HW Bush, Republicans have told us we can have our cake and eat it. That’s not the tone of Ryan’s austerity. And that alone is worth something.
What makes Sullivan’s give-and-take even more interesting is a check of Google News for the term “Starve the Beast.” There are only 60 mentions of the term in U.S. media sources. So what is the “Starve the Beast” strategy? Paul Krugman gave a good lesson in it more than a year ago, accurately predicting what we’d be seeing from Republicans today:
[E]ver since Reagan, the G.O.P. has been run by people who want a much smaller government. In the famous words of the activist Grover Norquist, conservatives want to get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
But there has always been a political problem with this agenda. Voters may say that they oppose big government, but the programs that actually dominate federal spending — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — are very popular. So how can the public be persuaded to accept large spending cuts?
The conservative answer, which evolved in the late 1970s, would be dubbed “starving the beast” during the Reagan years. The idea — propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol — was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.
And the deficit came. True, more than half of this year’s budget deficit is the result of the Great Recession, which has both depressed revenues and required a temporary surge in spending to contain the damage. But even when the crisis is over, the budget will remain deeply in the red, largely as a result of Bush-era tax cuts (and Bush-era unfunded wars). And the combination of an aging population and rising medical costs will, unless something is done, lead to explosive debt growth after 2020.
So the beast is starving, as planned. It should be time, then, for conservatives to explain which parts of the beast they want to cut. And President Obama has, in effect, invited them to do just that, by calling for a bipartisan deficit commission.
The current “Starve the Beast” brigade of Ryan and his Yes-men Republicans are not doing anything brave with their slash-and-burn budget. If Ryan were truly the type that cared about budget deficits, he wouldn’t have given a thumbs up to George W. Bush’s entire “screw the deficit and economy.” And he wouldn’t have agreed that having too much of a budget surplus was a bad thing, as he did in 2001.
The Republicans are trying to put the finishing touches on their master plan of making the United States into some type of strange Libertarian-Theocratic nation. They broke the budget on purpose, and are now attempting to reap rewards for both themselves and their big-money donors. If Ryan hadn’t scrawled out a an anti-Medicare, anti-humanist budget, some other Republican would have. It’s a long-term strategy and Ryan is only playing his part, after all.
But despite how obviously this plan has worked and how obvious the next step is, the media, Republicans and Democrats seem to be unable to conjure up the name. Because the rules of “Starve the Beast” demand you never speak of “Starve the Beast.”