President Obama’s speech Tuesday night should put to rest the argument as to who he really is. He revealed plans so sweeping and so expensive that, if they came to pass, we would permanently refashion the role of the federal government in the lives of every American.
During the campaign certain Republicans and libertarians tried to convince us Obama was a moderate, a sort of Bill Clinton “third way” reformer — and certainly no radical as conservatives claimed. Conservatives remained skeptical. Then during the transition, the debate as to Obama’s political philosophy continued. He sprinkled his cabinet with sober figures and experienced economic gurus. So perhaps he was moderate in outlook and restrained in ambition.
Next came the stimulus plan. Yes, he delegated the entire enterprise to Nancy Pelosi and the liberal draftsmen in Congress. But perhaps this was an error in judgment, a departure from what he “really” wanted in order to achieve a stimulus plan.
Well, the mystery has been solved. Obama is an unalloyed and extreme liberal. He does not intend merely to slay the recession. He intends to remake the country’s education, health care, and energy policies, with a hugely expanded and enormously powerful federal government directing vast swatches of American life and industry.
As Peter Baker of the New York Times put it:
His ideas for raising taxes on the wealthy, revamping the health care system, and reversing climate change represent a philosophical agenda that strikes at the heart of the other party’s core beliefs. While he said he did not believe in “bigger government,” he proposed a more activist government than any other since Lyndon B. Johnson.
This has relatively little, of course, to do with the recession. But Rahm Emanuel already told us that the administration regards the recession as an “opportunity” too good to waste.
The enormity of the president’s plans raise multiple questions: How will we pay for it? Is this what voters want? Is a government-directed health care system and a cap-and-trade carbon emissions regime compatible with a vibrant and innovative free market system?
But we did get some important answers last night, if not to those queries, then as to large political and philosophical ones. Just as the speech solved the mystery of who it was that we have elected as the 44th president, it also to a large degree defined the road Republicans must take in opposition and their path to recovery as a viable national political force.
It seems eons ago that in the aftermath of the election Republicans debated where they wanted to go as a political party and what they should do next. Throw out social conservatives, some suggested. Get rid of big-government moderates, others retorted. Pundits debated whether to advocate reform or return to the party’s roots, or whether the former could rely on the latter for inspiration. But now it is crystal clear what the party’s task must be: defend the free market and oppose the vast expansion of government which the president envisions. There is no getting around it. The opposition party must oppose.
In some sense Obama has made it easy. There is no point in the Republicans favoring half a loaf of nationalized health care or a moderate cap-and-trade rule. The extremism of the president’s agenda leaves the Republicans little choice — if they intend to remain an active party dedicated to personal liberty — but to oppose the president’s sweeping agenda.
The question remains how to do it and what tactics to employ in combating a charismatic and popular president who enjoys large majorities in the House and Senate. The Republicans would be wise to do three things.
First, they need to unmask the central fallacy at the core of the president’s scheme: that we can pay for all of this with minimal tax increases and no increase in public debt. This is the fuzziest math yet employed. It is simply dishonest. The president perceives the public’s wariness about living beyond our means when he declared:
There is, of course, another responsibility we have to our children. And that’s the responsibility to ensure that we do not pass on to them a debt they cannot pay. (Applause.) That is critical. I agree, absolutely. See, I know we can get some consensus in here. (Laughter.) With the deficit we inherited, the cost — (applause) — the cost of the crisis we face, and the long-term challenges we must meet, it has never been more important to ensure that as our economy recovers, we do what it takes to bring this deficit down. That is critical. (Applause.)
Republicans need to insist that the Democrats reveal their math: how much this will cost, how much revenue they intend to collect, and the long-term financial implications of this explosion of government activity. Just how much of the GDP do the Democrats intend to devote to government — 40%? 60%? More? It is tempting to nitpick small and easily understood spending items, but Republicans would do well to paint the bigger, and scarier, picture of what the Democrats have in mind.
Second, Republicans need to offer voters an alternative vision and alternative policies. The president believes government can do all these things. Republicans need to explain why states, private industry, and individuals can, for example, achieve expanded access to affordable coverage through expanded competition and private innovation far better than a one-size-fits-all federal plan can. The Democrats through budgeting stealth want to take away school choice. The Republicans want to expand it.
And finally, Republicans need to emphasize why it is that, aside from the cost, we don’t want government allocating carbon credits to business, determining the types of medical procedures we have access to, and generally directing large segments of the economy. As David Brooks explained:
The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families, and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.
In short, Republicans need to explain why the heavy hand of government is not the vehicle for navigating complex and intricate problems that are best left in the hands of citizens and the free market. As Robert Higgs reminds us, even when it comes to more mundane tasks like jump-starting the economy, proposals to expand government action should be greeted with a heavy dose of skepticism:
Federal intervention rests on the presumption that officials know how to manage the economy and will use this knowledge effectively. This presumption always had a shaky foundation, and we have recently witnessed even more compelling evidence that the government simply does not know what it’s doing. The big bailout bill enacted last October; the Federal Reserve’s massive, frantic lending for many different purposes; and now the huge stimulus package all look like wild flailing — doing something mainly for the sake of being seen to be doing something — and, of course, enriching politically connected interests in the process.
So the battle is on. Are we to redefine the relationship between our citizens and government? Will we permanently alter our health care, education, and free market systems? The story has yet to be written, but now we know the plot and the characters in this very real drama. At last, we have uncovered who the president is and what he intends to do. Now we will find out if he will have his way.