I was home with a sick baby today and I caught a little bit of Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on FOXNEWS. I get the feeling that she is quite bright, but she seems to have taken upon herself the role of popular narrative builder and issue framer for social democracy. I've seen her do this same act several times now. She goes out with the most audacious left-of-center focus group-tested lines and repeats them relentlessly and with no interest in their inherent truth. She is better at it than most.
Today she was talking about the Republican Study Group's plans to cut domestic discretionary spending. Wasserman Shultz argued that the spending cuts represented a " white flag" (I remember those words pretty clearly) in competition with China. Now depending on how the RSG's cuts are structured (and it probably won't get that far because no way is this proposal clearing both houses of Congress), this proposal could have multiple negative consequences, but it is tough to see how eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and cutting subsidies to Joe Biden for his post-Vice Presidential Amtrak rides will prevent us from competing with China. I know those only represent a tiny fraction of the proposed cuts, but that is the point. Wasserman Shultz doesn't tell us which cuts to which programs will inevitably lead to nightfall in America and why. Wasserman Shultz's purpose was to trade on what she (and I suspect much of our political class) perceives to be the pervasive public fears of decline, defeat and humiliation at the hands of China. Her entire argument was based on the premise that people would react mindlessly whenever those fears are inflamed. Therefore expect to hear a lot about how government "investment" (including investments to make sure that there is an Amtrak stop near Joe Biden's house) will make America competitive.
Republicans need a (hopefully more rational) counter narrative. This narrative will have to include an explanation of how government debt at all levels is creating a burden that will both crush the economy under enormous new taxes and lead to sudden, sharp and stupid cuts to government services if we don't start making some prudent spending decisions right now. Nobody is better than Paul Ryan at making that argument but Republicans need more. Republicans need a populist growth agenda and could do a lot worse than a pro-family, pro-growth tax reform that increases the take home pay of most working parents and frees up money for investment through the market rather than having members of Congress and unelected bureaucrats choosing winners and losers based on a combination of ideology, cronyism, and political horse trading. Republicans also shouldn't talk too little about what the government should be doing. As Henry Olsen has pointed out, the voters expect the government to deliver some important public goods. That means that Republicans will have to be credible on issues like education (which doesn't necessarily mean more federal money), transportation and health care policy. Republicans need to be able to point to examples where Republican policies have maintained (or even improved) core government services while balancing the books. The best examples of such a responsible pro-solvency, pro-effective but limited government agenda would be governors like Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell.