Mitt Romney’s staked out the entirely predictable position — based on both his record as governor of Massachusetts and his moderate position in the pool of Republican candidates — that federal arts funding should be cut in half.
I’ve written this before, but it’s worth saying again: if you start your discussion of dramatically cutting the federal budget with the arts, you’re probably not particularly serious about cutting spending in the first place. Cutting $155 million in arts and humanities spending, which is what we’d lose if Romney managed to pare down the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, or $310 million if both were eliminated, is almost laughably negligible, considering the federal government’s other obligations. And that smallness is precisely why conservatives frequently go after arts funding — and also, I think, why they fail. The assumption is that the arts don’t have much of a constituency, or they’d have more funding and more clout, so they’re a safe target, unlike, say, military spending. But that funding ends up spread out fairly widely, and attracting constituents in unexpected places — rural lawmakers, for example, in districts where the arts are fairly dependent on public funding can be pretty fond of it, even if they don’t have a lot of high-roller arts patrons among their constituency. And those folks who support the arts themselves tend to appreciate additional government support for their pet projects, or opera companies.
Other candidates who are still trying to stake out positions to the right of Romney will inevitably call for total elimination of these programs. Michele Bachmann already has. And we’ll keep spending time on a debate that we already seem to have a consensus on: that we won’t spend a huge amount of money on the arts, but we’ll try to make sure there’s enough funding for everyone to get a little beauty and enrichment. Instead, we’ll keep fighting the culture funding wars, forgetting that there are all kinds of government waste.