Monday, December 20, 2010

Taking stock

Reflecting on the year gone by, rarely has there been so much cause for optimism for advocates of limited government and economic freedom. Consider the following developments over the last 12 months:
  • The defeat of a Democrat Senate candidate in Massachusetts, in large part over the issue of health care reform.
  • A smashing Democratic defeat in the November election.
  • Passage of tax cut extensions through a Democrat-controlled Congress and White House.
  • The Citizens United decision which struck a significant blow against restrictions on political speech.
  • The emergence of the Tea Party as a force to be reckoned with, shifting Republicans towards the path of limited government -- perhaps the most encouraging development of all.
Reviewing this list, it is quickly apparent what a blessing in disguise Obamacare is proving to be for the political right. It has produced serious electoral defeat for Democrats, revived interest in constitutional limits on government and may very well never even come to pass due to its failure to include a severability clause.

None of this would have been possible without President Obama, Speaker of the House Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid, who have provided a much needed moment of clarity for American politics. Freed from the bonds of divided government and concern for public opinion, their agenda of unbridled statism let slip the Democratic party's moderate mask. 

An American political scene long muddied by Clintonian triangulation on the left and big government conservatism on the right has finally been thrown into sharp relief as Democrats followed their ideological North Star by implementing vast new spending and regulatory schemes. On the other side of the aisle, an encouraging number of Republicans have stepped forward to perform a much-needed ablution, purifying themselves in the tea-flavored waters of limited government. The choice faced by voters is increasingly stark.

Some may counter that we have seen this movie before. After all, Democratic overreach in the early years of the Clinton administration produced a similar voter backlash and GOP revival and promises of a renewed commitment to limited government that eventually fizzled. At least four items are worth noting, however:
  • The GOP Congress of the 1990s was in many ways a success. The budget was returned to surplus, no new vast expansions of the regulatory state occurred and the welfare state was pared back -- arguably the greatest public policy success of the last 20 years.
  • The empowerment of the grassroots and their ability to hold wayward Republicans accountable is unprecedented and growing. The internet has taken power from party officials and DC elites and has transferred it to the people. Their ability to influence not only elections but maintain pressure once politicians are in office is hugely impressive. While there may be little reason to trust John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, one can place more faith in the vigilance of grassroots activists to keep them honest.
  • The magnitude of the country's current and long-term fiscal deficits assures that the role and size of the federal government will remain squarely on the agenda. Quite simply, the country is broke, and serious questions regarding what the federal government does and what it actually should do must quickly move out of the realm of the abstract. The status quo is untenable.
  • There are growing signs that Republicans and the Tea Party will not become bogged down on social issues that simply divide while doing nothing to further the cause of limited government.
Of course, none of this means that success is assured, or even likely. But the stars continue to move into alignment.

Update: I should have also mentioned the Simpson-Bowles and Ryan-Rivlin reports on tax and entitlement reform as other encouraging developments that should help push public policy in a desirable direction.

No comments: