Rubio and Jindal’s Great Idea for Saving the GOP: A Return to George W. Bush’s Economic Policies

Commentary about business and finance.
Feb. 13 2013 2:28 PM

Bushonomics Is Back

The GOP’s latest rebranding effort is a return to the gospel of George W. Bush.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention.
Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during the final day of the 2012 Republican National Convention

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You can judge a political party’s self-confidence in part by how it treats its past leaders. Democrats spent all of the George W. Bush years waxing nostalgic about the good old days of the Clinton administration. Barack Obama’s election, by contrast, triggered mass amnesia in conservative circles about the name, identity, and partisan affiliation of his predecessor. To hear Republicans tell it, American politics ended in January 2001, only to suddenly shake back to life in February 2009 with a Kenyan socialist in the White House and the sound economy Ronald Reagan built lying in shambles.

But last night Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made clear in words what those of us who’ve been watching Republican deeds have long suspected: The party deeply yearns not for new ideas but for George W. Bush’s ideas. Bushonomics is back.

This is a huge shift from the first few years of Obama’s presidency. The staggering budget deficit racked up in Fiscal Year 2009 as the joint consequence of economic collapse, TARP, and the Obama stimulus electrified GOP rhetoricians. Suddenly Dick Cheney’s bold proclamation that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter” was forgotten. Compassionate conservatism was out, and scolding conservatism was in. Paul Ryan’s mastery of algebra impressed many.


America, we learned from the scolds, was polarized between makers and takers, with somewhere between 60 percent and 47 percent of the population living high on the dole while put-upon “job creators” had their wealth-creating talents sapped away by the tax man. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks reconceptualized economic policy as culture war, copies of Atlas Shrugged and The Road to Serfdom flew off the shelves, and at its 2012 nominating convention the GOP staged an orgy of self-congratulation for America’s prosperous business owners who, yes, dammit, built their companies all on their own with zero help from public school teachers or Big Government roads.

It didn’t go well.

Like any party in defeat the GOP now must rebrand, and in rebranding, the party has decided to look backward to George W. Bush. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal seems to have realized this before others. “Balancing the government’s books is a nice goal, but that is not our primary objective,” runs his now-standard speech on repositioning the party. “We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth.”

Speaking last night, Rubio made the point even more explicit. He denounced Obama’s “obsession with raising taxes” and said the real solution to the budget deficit was economic growth. Simply raising the real GDP growth rate to (an unrealistically high) 4 percent of GDP, he observed, “could reduce our deficits by almost $4 trillion dollars over the next decade” while creating “millions of middle class jobs.” Thanks to this super-growth, “the choice doesn’t have to be either higher taxes or dramatic benefit cuts for those in need.” Instead growth will “create new taxpayers … so our government can afford to help those who truly cannot help themselves.”

This is an approach with a proud pedigree in Republican politics. Some call it supply-side economics. Some call it compassionate conservatism. Either way, the point is the same: Republicans don’t think poor people are moochers and looters unfairly soaking the rich. Rather, the best way to help the poor is to cut taxes on the rich. Rubio is even trying to steer the party back to Bush’s stance on immigration.

On the economic front, calling this a different policy direction from the Romney/Ryan, pseudo-Randian version of the GOP would be an exaggeration. It’s not that Bush-era Republicans didn’t care about the deficit and Boehner-era Republicans did. It’s that Boehner-era Republicans pretended to care about the deficit while Bush-era Republicans pretended to care about the poor. Either way, the actual policy agenda of low taxes at any cost remained about the same. But points of rhetorical emphasis do matter.

Bushonomics opened the door to a particular kind of bipartisan compromise—social spending programs would be expanded or better funded in exchange for conservative-friendly structural reforms. That was the story of the No Child Left Behind education reform law and the 2003 Medicare bill adding prescription drug coverage for senior citizens. The austere, scolding Ryan version of Republicanism, on the other hand, encouraged a different kind of bargain: a deficit-focused one in which Democrats offered lower spending in exchange for higher taxes. Unlike Bushonomics, which produced compromise during the Bush years, the quest for the deficit grand bargain has brought America nothing but chaos and misery, as we lurch from one crisis to another.

A back-to-Bush approach—though Republicans will deny that’s what they’re doing—would in this sense be a welcome development. Low taxes, especially on high-income people, is what Republicans really care about in economic policy. They care deeply and profoundly about it. One can agree or disagree with them about that, but as long as it remains their key policy priority, it’s much healthier for America if they put that front and center. Several years of deficit-talk from the GOP have tended to confuse the issue—killing their brand politically while encouraging Democrats to waste time on pursuit of deals the Republicans will never embrace.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?