of gays, estate taxes, and other political surprises
The Senate turned down two conservative agendas this week: a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and the permanent repeal of the estate tax. The first didn't shock anyone very much: the proposal was known to lack adequate support and widely believed to be presented for political reasons. The second was rather more surprising.
At one level the failure of the estate tax regime is simply a matter of party politics. Given President Bush's current popularity, or lack thereof, few Democrats saw much reason to help out on a proposal that (whatever its policy merits) provides economic benefits primarily to people who are likely to vote Republican, anyway. Thus the proposal mustered 57 senators on an essentially party line vote, short of the 60 needed to close off debate on the issue. On a deeper level, the failure says much about current conservatism and its search for broader political appeal.
As anyone who spends fifteen minutes in the Republican Party knows, the party base is today motivated overwhelmingly by noneconomic concerns. Cutting estate or capital gain taxes, albeit enourmously important to the K street elite, simply has very little resonance for these voters, and is likely to bring almost nobody to the polls in what is shaping up as a brutal election year. (The deficit still matters, but mostly for symblic reasons: no one really wants the spending cuts that would be required to correct it) While most Republicans voted in favor of the bill, it is difficult to believe--rhetoric aside--that it was really very high on their priorities as compared to immigration, Iraq, and other more popular issues. They failed to convince many Democrats, I suspect, in part because they weren't trying very hard.
An interesting point here is the confusion of political labels. I have been writing lately about Italy, India, and other countries where there is a budding reaction against globalization, and the related idea that economic growth can solve all political problems. The Republican Party is nominally conservative in nature and favors what these people oppose. Yet its base, if not its elite, seems increasingly devoted to millenarian religious visions and increasingly ambivalent, if indeed it cares at all, about tax cuts, deregulation, the free flow of labor and capital: i.e., the entire globalization agenda. Is it possible that the party of globalization has itself become part of the anti-globalization reaction? Stay tuned.