Named “the Loneliest Republican” by the Atlantic, Business Insider politics editor Josh Barro is among the youngest, most prominent and caustic of the Republican writers who’ve raised alarms about the GOP approach to policy and politics on full display over the past two weeks. Barro spoke with Salon Wednesday about the congressional GOP (“crazy and awful”), conservative media (“if you don’t indulge the conservative bubble you’re going to lose the audience”), and how electoral disaster and business defections could change the party. What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Before I ask you anything else, Josh: you get accused of being a RINO [Republican in name only]. Remind us of your Republican credentials.
I’ve been a Republican as long as I’ve been a voter. When I was in college, I worked on two Republican campaigns. I spent the summer interning for Grover Norquist. My policy research work before I got into the press was mostly on state and local finance, and I mostly aligned with Republican politicians. A major theme, particularly in the Northeast, is that governments are employing too many people and paying them too much. I voted for Joe Lhota in our Republican mayoral primary here in New York.
But at the federal level, the issue set is just different. The federal government doesn’t spend a tremendous amount of its money on payroll. Nor is there really a meaningful concept that the federal government should be run like a business, because the federal government basically just moves money around. In the last few years, the key questions have been ones where Democrats have tended to be right: It was not appropriate to have significant fiscal austerity in the last few years – that has slowed down the economy. Especially in the last few decades, as you’ve had these really unequal returns to economic growth, the federal government needs to play an important role both in supporting low and middle incomes and then also providing a safety net. Because the economy is more fragile than we thought it was.
This, I think, is a key lesson that I took out of the financial crisis and the aftermath of it. We really thought we’d sort of beaten the business cycle, and we wouldn’t have events that would cause years of sustained high unemployment. And so it was less important to have policies aimed at mitigating that. Now we know that in fact we are vulnerable to that sort of thing, and so we need to figure out first of all what do we do to reduce that probability, and then what do we do to make up for that problem when it happens. And Republicans have just been completely absent on both of those questions.
On reducing the vulnerability, they have basically sniped at Democratic proposals on improving bank regulation without offering substantive proposals of their own. Similarly, there hasn’t been an acknowledgment that when you have years of sustained high unemployment, you can’t just blame the unemployed and say those people are lazy, they don’t want to work.
So the last few years at the federal level, Republicans have just not been offering good solutions to the problems that we face. And then we’ve seen over the last month that because they don’t like the things the other side is doing, they start temper tantrums and do things that are very damaging to the economy. And so I don’t know why I should look at that and say anything other than these people are crazy and awful and shouldn’t be trusted with power.
Has anything surprised you about how that’s played out over the past month?
This is exactly what I’ve come to expect from the national party. I think you see at the state and local level a lot of Republican politicians who are not completely nihilistic like the Republican House has become. People like Chris Christie, Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, even Jan Brewer. But what all of those politicians have in common is they’ve been able to stand up to the Republican base and say no. And they get away with it.
Whereas at the federal level, you have this core of about a third of the House Republican conference that’s just completely gone bananas. And they are immune to any information about public opinion or the economy. So those people can’t be reasoned with.
And then you have about two-thirds of the conference that understands what a train wreck much of this has become, but they can’t figure out how to stand up to these imbeciles because they know that they will face a primary challenger. Most of them, they know they can win a primary. But it’s a huge headache. And so they’re taking the path of least resistance, which is indulging the Ted Cruz wing of the party. And then you get these people like Devin Nunes, Peter King, Mike Fitzpatrick -- any number of moderates in the caucus who are complaining loudly about how the party has gotten off the rails, but they won’t take the vote necessary to stand up and prevent that because they’re afraid of the blowback if they do.
How do you think it is that Cruz and his allies have gotten this much leverage in the party?
I wrote a piece called, “Ted Cruz Is Living on Another Planet.” I wrote it on a Friday, and by Saturday morning I had enough hate mail to run another piece with all of the juiciest hate mail that I got from it. For me, I get all these angry emails and it’s amusing, and I get easy post fodder out of it. But if you’re a Republican member of Congress, this is scary. These are people that are going to give money to your primary challenger. These are people that are going to campaign against you. These are the people that elected you, who your job is to represent. And they want this crazy shit. So I think that’s where his power came from. His power comes from the fact that there is a very large sector of the country that wants what Ted Cruz is doing. It’s not a majority, but it’s big enough to cause a lot of problems for a lot of Republican elected officials in primaries.
Congressman Culberson claimed to me that Obama had refused to talk to Boehner, and that he had shaken hands with “the dictator of Iran.” What role do you think conservative media plays in getting us to this point?
I think conservative media creates an echo chamber, which allows a lot of these elected officials to believe incorrectly that they have majority support behind them, and that strategies like defunding are going to work. Because of the media bubble, they didn't realize it wasn’t true. Some of them still don’t understand.
After the 2012 election, I thought it was going to teach them a lesson: that when you close yourselves out from the outside world, you start distrusting all outside sources, you can get misled. You had a little bit of soul-searching … That seems to have lasted a couple of months. [Recently] you had Ted Cruz on TV saying about the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, "There were too many government employees in the sample, I don’t believe the poll." So there is still interest in staying in the bubble.
But I think it’s simplistic to blame specific media figures for keeping them within the bubble. And the reason for that is this: There’s always somebody out there who’s going to write whatever stupid shit. And so if you don’t indulge the conservative bubble, you’re going to lose the audience and they’re going to go to somebody else. So it’s structurally inevitable that this happens on the right. The only way that it can stop is if the audience stops demanding it, because they realize they’ve been misleading them. But I don’t know how long it’s going to take to beat that into their heads. Loss of the House in 2014, which I think is a very real possibility now - if that happens, I think that might beat some sense into the party. Maybe. But you know, 2012 losses didn’t do it. So I don’t know how many times they need to get burned before they realize the stove is hot.
The public discontent we hear from you, from some other conservative journalists, from certain elected Republicans -- do you think that’s going to translate into something that could make some change in the party?
I should note I’m not a conservative. I used to be a libertarian. My politics are frankly fairly close to the center. But I think there’s a lot of discontent from other Republican reformists, and even people who are not really reformists.
I think Republican elected officials respond much more to Ted Cruz and the political base he represents than they respond to me. And the only way they’ll start listening to me is if the voters are making them listen to me by causing them to lose more general elections. I also think, frankly, that the group I’m waiting for to join my bandwagon here are, broadly, business interests. You see the Chamber of Commerce this month complaining about shutting down the government. But the Chamber of Commerce won’t go the next step and throw support behind Democrats, who are implementing more business-friendly policies than the Republicans are right now. You can see it in the stock market.
There’s this kind of visceral feeling among a lot of business people that they shouldn’t be for Democrats. I also think the president has not been very good at courting them, in a way that, for example, Andrew Cuomo has been very successful at courting business interests. There is room for Democrats to co-opt those business interests, and a more politically nimble person than the president might be able to do that. But if the Republicans continue to be this destructive to the economy, I think it’s inevitable that they will have to give up their position as the party of business. That will mean a loss of significant financial support for the party. And I think that could also be something that forces Republican elected officials to be more responsive.
You tweeted that “with Andrew Cuomo existing, it’s not entirely clear why New York even needs a Republican party.” How much traction do you think the Cuomo approach on economic issues has in the Democratic Party? Is it gaining?
I think it depends what office you’re looking at. I think Democrats nationally will want to nominate somebody to Cuomo’s left in 2016. But I think Cuomo is extremely popular in New York state across the political spectrum, and will basically be governor for as long as he wants to be. Bill de Blasio has been running this very popular [NYC mayoral] campaign appealing to left-wing ideas about the economy, and very focused on inequality. I think when you see Bill de Blasio as mayor, he’s actually going to govern in a much more centrist way that is appealing to the same business establishment that likes Cuomo. I think he’s going to have to do that in order to achieve his goal of building 200,000 new affordable housing units.
I think that sort of centrist synthesis on economic policy is good policy, and I think that ends up making it good politics in practice in lots of places.
It looks like the sequester will continue. Bloomberg noted in January that federal outlays had grown in the prior three years at the slowest rate since Eisenhower. So the Republican brand seems to have suffered recently, but has the right won in the fight over spending?
Well, they’ve won on the narrow issue of the sequester -- except in the sense that I think the right is quite ambivalent about the defense cuts. But Democrats are winning a big part of the spending fight of their own. Democrats want more or less the status quo on entitlement spending. Democrats want more or less the legal status quo with with Obamacare being implemented as scheduled.
So I think the win on spending is a mixed bag. I think there’s this one specific area that Democrats are losing on. But I think that’s going to be fluid. Democrats might take the House back in 2014, at which point they’ll spend more money. I also think that if the economy continues to modestly improve, the fiscal picture is going to be modestly improved, and downward pressure on spending is going to ease. So I don’t expect to stay at sequestration spending levels for the actual 10 years that’s prescribed in the Budget Control Act. So for now Republicans have won on that, but I don’t think their win is durable.
How much popular support do you think there is among Republican voters for your economic policy?
I would say this: I don’t think a lot of Republican voters would look at the agenda that I’ve laid out and say, yes, I want to take that approach. But I do think Republican voters are not especially interested in the Paul Ryan economic agenda that is very heavily focused on reductions in marginal tax rates, especially at the top, and reductions in entitlement programs.
I think where there’s room to meet in the middle is, for example, on tax reform that is more focused on providing relief for middle-class families, especially families with children. Sen. Mike Lee actually has quite a good tax plan framework out.
I think there is an appetite among Republican voters for economic policies that address, in a market-based way, middle-class concerns about stagnant income and the rising cost of healthcare. The problem for Republicans is that there’s a tradeoff between doing that and cutting tax rates. If you want to give out big cuts in the top income rate, and the top capital gains rate, you don’t have room to make those kinds of family-friendly policies. So I think that’s an area where the party is likely to shift out of necessity in the next few years. I also think as Obamacare comes into effect, the party will make peace with it, as they’ve made peace with basically every other entitlement program.
They’re ultimately going to have to shift in my direction on economic policy because the party’s policy platform as it exists now simply doesn’t address the economic concerns of the bottom 90 percent of the country.
Do you think your ability to advocate for these shifts in the Republican Party is limited by not still being someplace like the National Review?
I was never on staff at National Review -- I would contribute to Reihan Salam’s blog periodically, and I’ve written a handful of pieces for the print magazine. I don’t think it’s reduced my influence, because I never had that much influence. I think certainly I’m on the outside. I’m not someone who’s considered a trusted adviser by a lot of people inside the movement right now. But I don’t think there’s a reasonable place to be other than outside. The party on the national level has gone so off the rails that there’s no way to participate in good faith from the inside. What I’m counting on for my ideas to win out is not networking and building influence, but the fact that the party’s current platform sucks, and they’re going to need a new one that properly addresses the issues of the day. And I believe I have that.