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The GOP’s Spending Fight Is More About Fighting Than Spending
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The GOP’s Spending Fight Is More About Fighting Than Spending

These new deficit hawks aren’t opposed to racking up debt, they just want to be the ones doing it.

Incoming House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (right) argues with members of the Freedom Caucus, including Rep. Bob Good, Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Rep. Matt Rosendale during votes for speaker of the House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)

For several years now, I’ve been told that the “old consensus” of fiscal conservatism and limited government was dead. So, you might think I’m delighted by the sudden rebirth of Tea Party-style budget-cutting zeal on display in the GOP’s brinksmanship over the debt ceiling. 

Not so much.

I’ll get to the debt ceiling fight, but first let’s take a moment to consider Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor rumored to be contemplating a Senate run in 2024. 

Daniels has been perhaps the most successful and adroit budget cutter of our lifetimes, both as governor and as president of Purdue University. 

When Daniels left his job at Eli Lilly to become governor in 2005, Indiana was plagued by debt and deficits. He left the state with a triple-A credit rating and a $2 billion rainy day fund. When took over at Purdue, the school had raised tuition every year for 36 consecutive years.  He froze tuition at under $10,000 for a decade—while raising revenue. This was amidst an era of exploding tuition increases at public universities (134 percent since 2003).

But last week, the Club For Growth,  which markets itself as a leading defender of limited government and economic conservatism, attacked him for even thinking of running for Senate.  “After 50 years of big government, big pharma and big academia, Mitch Daniels forgot how to fight,” the group  declared in ad. 

I guess it depends on what you mean by fighting.  

For Trumpified institutions like the Club for Growth, fighting is defined as performative pugnaciousness. The House Freedom Caucus, the tail that wags the dog of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s Republican conference, is such an institution.

In his struggle to become speaker, McCarthy reportedly made a commitment to hold up an increase in the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts from the Democrats. The deadline comes this week. If the limit isn’t raised, the government will start running out of cash and the prospect of a debt default will rattle the American and global economy. 

“If you had a child, you gave them a credit card, and they kept hitting the limit, you wouldn’t just keep increasing it,” McCarthy said on Sunday.  “You’d first see what you’re spending your money on. How can we cut items out?”

That sounds right and I’d love it if the GOP’s gambit was successful. But the first problem with the analogy is that you’d still have to pay your credit card bill for money you already spent. The time to cut spending is when you’re spending. The second problem is that the gambit isn’t really about spending. 

Republicans—rightly!—opposed the Democrats’ lame duck massive $1.7 trillion omnibus bill last month. But in every year of Trump’s presidency, Republicans approved $1-trillion-plus omnibus spending bills. And that’s excluding all that lavish COVID spending.  He paid for the MAGA agenda with America’s credit card. 

 It’s almost like these new deficit hawks aren’t opposed to racking up debt, they just want to be the ones doing it. 

In 2021, Mick Mulvaney, one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus, explained in an interview the group’s real motivations. Early in his presidency Trump worried that the Freedom Caucus would be a thorn in his side. But Mulvaney, a former acting chief of staff in the Trump White House, said he advised Trump that the group was actually his base because “at the core the Freedom Caucus is anti-establishment.”

According to Mulvaney, the Freedom Caucus abandoned fiscal conservatism because with Trump in office “the Freedom Caucus sort of moved to front and center on Fox News” and “they realized that there’s a lot more energy behind being nutjobs than there is being reasonable.”

In other words, when being fiscally conservative is rebellious and disruptive, they’ll strap on their green eyeshades. But when one of their leaders is in power,  out comes the credit card.  

This anti-establishment ethos was on full display in McCarthy’s struggle to become House speaker and it explains the virulent opposition to helping Ukraine. But it’s also come to define what it means to be a conservative in good standing among many primary voters as well as small and large donors and the institutions that rely upon them. 

The New Left rebel spirit of the 1960s, which held that pragmatic progress was evidence of “selling out,” is alive and well in the New Right of the 2020s. 

The irony is that in this climate, the real rebels are going to be people, like Mitch Daniels, who actually want to accomplish something. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.