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Should Conservatives Oppose a Welfare State? Why Charles Krauthammer is Correct and Andy McCarthy is Wrong


As Steve Hayward writes in his introduction to Voegeli’s book, the argument conservatives should make is that the welfare state failed to reach its own set objectives, a tactic which led to the successful welfare reform enacted by Bill Clinton in 1996. What Americans want, he argues, is a “welfare state, but not too much of one.” When conservatives argue in the manner that Andy McCarthy does, which he calls “the equivalent of a child’s temper tantrum,” it assumes that the louder they yell the likelier it is that the American people will change their minds. Hence Voegeli asks us to embrace the seeming paradox that conservatives’ only hope of limiting the welfare state is to overcome their categorical opposition to it.

Hence the need for conservatives to accept a “grand bargain.” Its nature is simply one proposing that “major program benefits should be means-tested so that they are directed to the truly needy, in exchange for defined limits on the extent of the welfare state.” And as it turns out, such a bargain was almost made, only to be derailed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The historian Steven Gillon, in The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation, revealed that both political leaders were about to go against the base of their own parties. Gingrich agreed to allow the government to use the surplus to save Social Security, instead of for a massive tax cut, while Clinton agreed to support private health accounts, to raise the minimum age required to get Social Security, and to reduce the cost-of-living adjustments. Clinton had agreed moreover to pressure Democrats to make painful compromises to get a deal with Republicans, and to sell it to the left of the Democratic Party. Medicare would, according to a commission about the future of Medicare, have been converted from a universal fee-for-service plan into a defined-benefit subsidy towards the purchase of a private or public health insurance plan.

The impeachment scandal simply ended this one chance for genuine entitlement reform, in which both sides would have had to accept compromises to make progress.