One test of a presidential candidate is how he or she describes an ideal America. For some, it is a nation without homogenization. But what about the other Republican contenders?
Every candidate in the current field accepts the goal of reversing the Obama era. In 2008, the federal government spent $3 trillion; in 2011, it will spend $3.8 trillion. Federal spending has jumped from 20.7 percent of gross domestic product to 25.3 percent. Federal debt held by the public is twice what it was in 2008. This path is unsustainable.
But should it also be a Republican goal to return America to a time before the Great Society? In 1964, Barry Goldwater found the whole concept of Medicare to be excessive. “Why not vacation resorts?” he asked. “Why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?” In February, Rep. Michele Bachmann seemed to identify with this tradition. Existing Medicare commitments should be honored, she argued, but it would be necessary to “wean everybody else off.”
Among the significant developments of the young Republican primary season is Bachmann’s revision of these views. She has recently been critical of the Medicare portion of Rep. Paul Ryan’s House budget. Her vote for that legislation, she insists, has an “asterisk” or a “proviso.” “I’m concerned about shifting the cost burden to senior citizens. . . . That’s why I put that asterisk out there.”
The Bachmann Proviso shows that even the Tea Party favorite has a realistic sense of political risk. But this distancing is partially unfair to Ryan. While it is true his plan would eventually require most seniors to pay a larger portion of their health costs, it would also provide subsidies to low-income seniors to cover higher out-of-pocket expenses. And a fiscally sustainable safety net is more compassionate than a generous system that collapses.
Apart from Ron Paul, Republican candidates do not recommend a retreat from the federal role in providing health care to the elderly. They propose, instead, to achieve that goal through premium supports, individual choice and market competition. This is the guilty secret of the Republican presidential field: From Huntsman to Bachmann, the candidates accept many of the goals of the Great Society, if pursued by conservative and free-market methods. They are following the example of Ronald Reagan, whose early opposition to Medicare ended in a politically realistic accommodation with the program. (One reason Paul has described Reagan’s presidency as a “failure.”)
The ideological certainties of the conservative movement often contrast with the conduct of conservative politicians. Activists may regard the New Deal as soft socialism, but conservative politicians do not seek the end of Social Security or unemployment insurance. Conservative talk show hosts may call the progressive movement of the late 19th century a “cancer in America,” but most presidential hopefuls do not oppose antitrust legislation, the direct election of senators or the inspection of meat-packing plants.
Which brings us back to Ron Paul, who may well oppose federal efforts to prevent the sale of rotting meat. After all, he accuses Abraham Lincoln of starting the Civil War in order to strengthen the “centralized state” and to “get rid of the original tenet of the Republic.”
Paul is sometimes viewed as a naive but fearless conservative role model — implying that other Republicans are timid or compromised. But the project of reversing the Great Society, the New Deal and progressive reform is not ideological purity; it is socially disruptive radicalism. Conservatives hold a strong preference for individual freedom. But they traditionally have recognized a limited role for government in smoothing the rough edges of a free society. This concern for the general welfare helps minimize the potential for revolutionary change, while honoring a shared moral commitment to the vulnerable.
It is neither necessary nor healthy for conservatives to reject Lincoln or Louis Pasteur.