Scott Sumner  

Has President Obama changed the GOP?

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Here's Ramesh Ponnuru:

At no point in Obama's presidency did his political success make Republicans consider assimilating some of his views into their philosophy, as Bill Clinton had done with Reaganism. Republicans are even less likely to make such an adjustment now.

The Democrats' political defeats also imperil their policy achievements under Obama. It is not clear how much of Obamacare will survive. But it is clear enough already that Obama is no Reagan.


I certainly agree that Obama is no Reagan (or FDR). But it's far too soon to draw any conclusions about the impact of his presidency. Consider:

1. The incoming Republican President has adopted Obama's position that major programs such as Social Security and Medicare should not be cut, thereby repudiating the GOP position.

2. Trump has called for aggressive fiscal stimulus, including infrastructure spending. (Here, however, it's still unclear if he is calling for federal spending on infrastructure, or private spending.)

3. Trump has called for a federal health care program that would insure access to health insurance for all Americans.

4. Trump has adopted the sort of skeptical view of free trade agreements that has previously been associated with Democratic members of Congress. (Of course in that case Obama was allied with much of the GOP, and both groups lost out under Trump.).

5. In 2013, the GOP strongly opposed Obama's tax increases on the rich. And yet Trump's Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin has said that the rich should not receive any tax cut. Any rate reductions must be fully offset by closing loopholes.

In my view there is more uncertainty than usual with the incoming Trump administration, so we'll have to see how this all plays out. I predict that Obamacare will survive and be accepted by the GOP, perhaps after being formally repealed and replaced with something quite similar.

So I believe it's far too soon to determine the legacy of the Obama administration. I have mixed feelings about all this. I favor radical change in health care, and worry that we won't get it. On the other hand I support revenue neutral tax reform that lowers rates and closes loopholes.

I also believe that the GOP is gradually accepting Obama's position on gay rights, and would not rule out gradual acceptance of Obama's global warming views. Time will tell.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
pyroseed13 writes:

I pretty much agree with this. On health care, Republicans have definitely moved to left. Most Republican health plans include some kind of universal coverage for catastrophic care. Eight years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Republicans to argue that the government should help people get insurance. This would have been derided as "socialism."

Thaomas writes:

As Zhou EnLai is supposed to have said about the effects of the French Revolution, "Too early to say," I have to agree with Scott about the legacy of Obama.

Still he has some curious phrases:

Trump has

adopted the sort of skeptical view of free trade agreements that has previously been associated with Democratic members of Congress.
No, this does NOT count as continuation of Obama's legacy.

Obama's position that major programs such as Social Security and Medicare should not be cut, thereby repudiating the GOP position.
Not exactly, Obama seemed willing to cut SS on the margins as part a "grad Bargain" in which the GOP was willing to tax high income people more. That was a bridge too far for today's GOP.


TMC writes:

I agree with most, but:
1. Cutting Medicare or SS has always been a fringe movement on the right. Most seniors vote Republican, so it'll never be touched. Calling it an Obama position is similar to a partisan breach on what direction the sun rises.

5. Basically restates Reagan's tax policy.

Also Trump had the public gay rights viewpoint before Obama would publically state it, and catastrophic global warming public stance has been waning for the past 10 years, opposite of Obama's stance.

Andrew_FL writes:

And from the sound of it you love the GOP adopting Obama's positions, you just don't like it to come in an orange package.

AlanG writes:

Excellent post!!! As a lifelong Dem, I think Obama will go down as a somewhat failed President. He rode a big wave to victory in 2008 and then totally ignored the building 2010 tsunami (largely the Democratic National Committee's fault as they continued celebrating and ignored the grass roots). Once the House flipped and then they lost the Senate, the only ammo the Prez had was executive orders which he fully used. Any thoughts about a legacy other than the ACA and a bizarrely awarded Nobel Prize went down the tubes in 2010. He may not even fare as well as Clinton when the revisionist historians look back in 20-30 years.

#2 - this remains to be seen as the original proposal was for huge tax credits and much less in direct government spending. I doubt that the tax credits idea will fly as those doing the infrastructure rebuilding want something out of it (toll bridges/road, access fees, etc.) that the broader public will probably reject.

#3 - all we know is that it will be terrific and cost much less. As with everything surrounding health care, the devil is in the details. It's clear that the Republicans never had a clue about how to unwind Obamacare and even Trump acknowledged in the Fox interview that we are looking at something in 2018 which will be an election year for the House and 1/3 of the Senate. Several House members were already ambushed at Town Hall meetings about this.

#5 - will the fabled carried interest deduction finally be repealed? Of all the Trump cabinet appointees, Mnunchin's testimony was the best I heard. He was to the point and presented clear markers to the skeptical Dems about what his thinking was on taxation. Now if he can only deal with Freddie and Fannie I can retire in luxury because of my Fairholme Fund holdings!!! :-)

Finally, the gay rights matter was evolving and I as well as others were quite surprised at how fast it gained traction and became broadly accepted.

Floccina writes:

A lot of people were talking about something like the PPACA before Obama was elected. People feel different about health care.

BTW I think in health care and college, we in the USA have a problem with the Federal Government subsidizing demand while state and local governments exert quite a bit of control over supply. The feds pay for a lot for health care and college (and subsidize loans) this reduces the incentive for state politicians to fight their providers and regulate in a way that treats lower costs as very important. As evidence IMO Utah has the least corrupt state gov. in the country (less likely to side with the concentrated interest of their providers) and health care spending in Utah is not that far from in some western European countries.

ee writes:

"At no point in Obama's presidency did his political success make Republicans consider assimilating some of his views into their philosophy"

I blame this on parties that are less sensitive to swing voters caused by election mechanics issues. Gerrymandering in the House and FPTP elections for individual seats in the Senate lead to representatives who are more accountable to their base rather than swing voters. Gerrymandering in particular has contributed to the problem since the 1990s.

Also as you described the Republican party may have assimilated some of his policies after all.

Scott Sumner writes:

Andrew, I guess you didn't read the entire post.

Floccina, That's an excellent point.

JayT writes:

As for the gay rights issue, I would say that the Republicans are adopting the general public's views more so than they are adopting Obama's policies. 2008 Obama would almost be an average Republican today on this issue. As the public has moved more in favor of gay rights, both parties have moved in that direction as well.

David Condon writes:

On health care, both Romney and McCain took a pro-Medicare stance during their campaigns, and Republicans campaigned heavily against Democrats for Medicare cuts in 2010 and 2012. Bush II even expanded Medicare in his first term. Trump isn't an outlier here; Republicans have just been incredibly inconsistent on Medicare cuts. Politics isn't about policy.

Jim Glass writes:

ISTM that the evolution of Republican party positions is part of the process of the growing Republican majorities across the states winning the median voters - standard political science "median voter theorem" stuff. It's hardly a result of any lasting ideological persuasiveness of the Obama-ites.

"it is clear enough already that Obama is no Reagan."

Understatement of the day. Obama's leadership has been a disaster for the Democrats.

Since he was elected the number of state legislatures under full Democratic control has plunged from 23 to 13, while the number under full Republican control has shot up from 14 to 32 (33 counting "nonpartisan" Colorado's). At the state level Republicans are now the strongest they've been in 80 years. Since the Civil War there hasn't been a comparable party collapse since the Republicans during the 1930s -- and there was a Great Depression driving that. This is a disaster.

And it isn't by happenstance. The Obama-Pelosi-Reid leadership followed a clear policy of deepening political support in urban areas while sacrificing the median counties and congressional districts. That's a great way to get campaign contributions and please your own activists, but a terrible idea for winning elections. Sean Trende documents the former median, switch-between-Red-and-Blue counties turning solidly red across the entire country in considerable detail.

People talk about Hillary winning the popular vote, but at the Congressional level the Republicans won the popular vote with 50.4%, up from 44% in 2008. Republican control of 30+ states enabled them to get even the candidate with the worst 'unfavorables' in polling history elected.

Make no mistake, Trump was a terrible candidate. As noted on the other site, he pulled a smaller percentage of eligible voters than did McCain and Romney, underperformed the Repub Congressional vote by more than 4% (with his 45.9%), and by that measure did worse than both McCain and Romney too. All against the candidate with the second-worst unfavorables ever.

Of course Trump and his Trumpistas think that these numbers give them not merely a mandate but an epic, change-the-nature-of-US-politics mandate. It's going to be fun watching them get an education.

But one suspects that with a 30+ states-and-still-growing majority, the Repubicans could have elected a ham sandwich if it found itself at the top of the ticket. At least against Hillary. And considering how Trump today lectured the National Sheriffs Association on how the murder rate is at a 47-year high, perhaps they did.

As to Obama's impact on evolving Republican positions, forget it. Nobody imitates failure like that. Presidential politics gets all the hype but state-level politics is where the rubber meets the road. Observe the Republicans sweeping up all the median counties across the entire country. "Median voter theorem".


Jim Glass writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Andrew_FL writes:

Actually I did, and I stand by my statement.

Scott Sumner writes:

Andrew, Then read it a third time, and try to focus on what I actually said.

"I favor radical change in health care, and worry that we won't get it."

Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

Ross Douthat made similar points in response to my article. I responded to him here: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/444152/how-transformative-was-obama

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