Gather round, gentle reader, and I will tell you a tale of yesteryear. It involves the Republican Party, and you will not recognize the institution I am about to describe, full of men in homburgs and little old ladies in tennis shoes, unduly worried about communists at home, to be sure, but also preoccupied with thrift, good manners, and social and cultural stability.
Their presidents said little, and that's not only Calvin Coolidge, who once was challenged by a woman who bet she could prompt him to say three words, only to hear the 30th president say, "You lose." Dwight Eisenhower was no talk-a-holic, and the few remarks he made that were not deliberately convoluted were freighted with great common sense. ("Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong.") If anything, Herbert Hoover said too little during the Great Depression.
These Republicans of the old school seldom hectored their opponents the way Harry Truman did when he said, "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself." They were, to be sure, conservatives, sometimes deeply and primitively so (Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire wanted the state's National Guard to be outfitted with nuclear weapons), but for the most part the most devout racists were in the Democratic Party, often as powerful, obstructionist committee chairmen on Capitol Hill. The great civil rights bills of the 1960s owe their success in large measure to Republicans. (Only one Republican voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the Senate, as opposed to 17 Democrats who opposed it.)
By now you've ascertained that this column is about the eclipse of the old GOP, for whom attention to the deficit was not a disorder, and the rise of a Republican Party led by a president who tweets more in a morning than Coolidge spoke in a month. (Coolidge's wisdom included this thought that might be shared with his modern-day successor: "I have never been hurt by anything I didn't say.")
Much of this is stylistic and perhaps peripheral, though not completely unimportant. But what concerns us here is the way the Republicans have drifted from their sense of economy and — to borrow a favorite word from George H.W. Bush — prudence.
The Republicans of the old school were wary of spending, a character flaw when the economy was in swift retreat and when basic human needs were not being satisfied by the hidden hand they admired so much in business and commerce. But their penny-pinching was an effective and often useful check on government extravagance, sometimes to the annoyance of Democrats, a breed of humanity they liked as individuals but did not much admire as a group.
Well, that was yesterday, and yesteryear. Here we have a party that may be satisfied to be unmoored from its Babbitt tendencies — Sinclair Lewis, writing in Warren Harding America, nailed this breed in his eponymous 1922 novel — and from men whose view of the world, slightly altered by a highball at nightfall, Lewis crisply summarized this way: "What do you expect? Think we were sent into the world to have a soft time and — what is it? — 'float on flowery beds of ease'? Think Man was just made to be happy?"
He might have added: Think Republican Man and GOP Woman were made to combine a tax cut with infrastructure programs?
This strain of Republican is all but extinct, but not thoroughly so. The other day Steve Bell, who was staff director for the Senate Budget Committee for five years in the Ronald Reagan era, was complaining to me about how the Republicans no longer worry about a balanced budget, a phrase that was conspicuous in its omission from Donald J. Trump's budget proposal released this past week.
"He's for massive tax cuts, a large military, but will not touch Social Security or Medicare," said Bell, who spent a large portion of his career working for GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, a fabled deficit hawk. "Most Republican incumbents now believe nobody cares about the deficit."
Then I called G. William Hoagland, also a Senate Budget Committee alumnus and once the director of budget and appropriations in the office of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee Republican. "There are times when we should do deficit spending," he said, "but this isn't a time when Republicans ordinarily would do it."
Now a caveat. More than a quarter-century ago, Rep. Jack F. Kemp, the Buffalo Republican, campaigned for tax cuts and argued that deficits were less important than Republicans once believed. One of his proteges and colleagues was former Rep. Vin Weber, who was co-chair of Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign. Weber, of Minnesota, carries an ideological torch for Kemp, but not as an instrument of scorched-earth economics.
"Within the group around Jack there were varying views about the deficit," he said. "But he would have been concerned about this size of a deficit in relation to GDP. I worry it may be out of control now, largely because of entitlement spending. No one shows much interest in tackling that."
So here is the conundrum. If you're worried about long-term deficit spending, the main antidotes are cutting entitlements and raising taxes. The Democrats won't do the first; the Republicans won't do the second. That was a problem when there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. But it is a calamity now.
It once was common for typists of my cursed breed to write about a Democratic Party loose from its moorings and suffering from an identity crisis. That was yesterday, and yesteryear. The Republicans have the White House and the Congress — and an identity crisis of their own.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.