Symbols Are for the Little People.

Both of our two great political parties are coalitions of groups with different priorities. Some of those priorities can be addressed in specific ways, while others are more amenable to gestures and symbols. Jonathan Bernstein argues that conservative demands tend not only to be more symbolic but also more all-or-nothing:

...most Democratic constituency groups have real policy demands, and that they’re very eager to have those demands fulfilled. My sense is that a lot of Republican constituency groups have more symbolic demands.

Therefore, at the end of the day, a lot of Republican constituency groups are willing to go along with an all-or-nothing strategy on most issues, while Democratic constituency groups are perfectly willing to bargain for as much as they can get. Look: if you want universal health care, you are probably willing to settle for moving from 80% coverage to 95% coverage (or whatever the actual numbers are). If you believe that government involvement in health care is unconstitutional, or immoral, or whatever, then there’s not much to bargain over.

This is more true of some constituencies than others. The Christian right, for instance, has long grumbled that they do the grunt work of getting voters out on Election Day, but then are rewarded more with words than with actions when Republicans win. The problem is that the things they want -- outlawing abortion, for instance -- are kind of pie-in-the-sky things that are both unpopular and difficult to enact even if you wanted to.

But there is one GOP constituency group that has very specific demands and nearly always gets what it wants: the moneyed class. Take the first six years of George W. Bush's administration, when Republicans controlled Congress. There was nothing Bush worked as hard on, or held as firmly to, as the conviction that those who have the most money and power should be free from the burden of taxation and regulation. When Dick Cheney justified a set of budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy by telling then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, "We won the midterms. This is our due," what he meant was that now they got to do what they really wanted. They cut income taxes (mostly for the wealthy), inheritance taxes, capital gains taxes, taxes on stock dividends -- in short, if there was a tax that rich people have to pay, they went after it.

Sometimes one looks at the debate over taxes we have and says, "Surely Republicans will retreat when it becomes so obvious that they're just shilling for the rich." But they don't, even when the polls are against them. Why? It's not because they've been bought off. It's because they believe it. Bush clearly believed in his heart that cutting taxes for the wealthy was the right thing to do, and so do today's Republicans. And in the end, they win. They're about to win again, even with the White House and the Congress controlled by Democrats.

-- Paul Waldman

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