Republicans' Day of Reckoning

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Excerpts from President Obama's first major address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.Video: AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By William Kristol
Thursday, February 26, 2009

After Tuesday night, no one should doubt Barack Obama's ambition. His silent dismissal of the efforts of his immediate predecessors -- he mentioned none of them -- is only one indication of the extent to which he intends to be a new president breaking new ground in a new era.

George W. Bush defined his presidency by his response to the terror attacks. Obama didn't discuss Sept. 11. And by relegating foreign policy to the status of a virtual afterthought, Obama indicated that he doesn't think his presidency will rise or fall by the success or failure of his diplomatic or military endeavors. Bill Clinton told Congress in 1996 that the era of big government was over. Obama withdrew that concession to conservatives and conservatism. George H.W. Bush worried in 1989 that we have more will than wallet. Obama has no such worries.

Obama's speech reminds of Ronald Reagan's in 1981 in its intention to reshape the American political landscape. But of course Obama wishes to undo the Reagan agenda. "For decades," he claimed, we haven't addressed the challenges of energy, health care and education. We have lived through "an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity." Difficult decisions were put off. But now "that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here." The phrase "day of reckoning" may seem a little ominous coming from a candidate of hope and change. But it's appropriate, because it's certainly a day of reckoning for conservatives and Republicans.

For Obama's aim is not merely to "revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity." Obama outlined much of this new foundation in the most unabashedly liberal and big-government speech a president has delivered to Congress since Lyndon Baines Johnson. Obama intends to use his big three issues -- energy, health care and education -- to transform the role of the federal government as fundamentally as did the New Deal and the Great Society.

Conservatives and Republicans will disapprove of this effort. They will oppose it. Can they do so effectively?

Perhaps -- if they can find reasons to obstruct and delay. They should do their best not to permit Obama to rush his agenda through this year. They can't allow Obama to make of 2009 what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965. Slow down the policy train. Insist on a real and lengthy debate. Conservatives can't win politically right now. But they can raise doubts, they can point out other issues that we can't ignore (especially in national security and foreign policy), they can pick other fights -- and they can try in any way possible to break Obama's momentum. Only if this happens will conservatives be able to get a hearing for their (compelling, in my view) arguments against big-government, liberal-nanny-state social engineering -- and for their preferred alternatives.

Right now, Obama is in the driver's seat -- a newly elected and popular president with comfortable Democratic congressional majorities and an adulatory mainstream news media. Still, Republicans do have advantages over their forebears in 1965 and 1933. There are more Republicans in Congress today, so they should be able to resist more effectively. There is much more of a record of liberal failures to look back on now than when the New Deal and the Great Society were being rushed through. Conservatism is more sophisticated than it was back then. So there is no reason to despair.

Still, conservatives and Republicans shouldn't minimize their tasks. Long term, they need fresh thinking in a host of areas of domestic policy, thinking that builds on previous conservative achievements but that deals with the new economic and social realities. In the short term, Republicans need to show a tactical agility and political toughness far greater than their predecessors did in the 1960s and the 1930s. "Else they will fall," to quote the great conservative Edmund Burke, "an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle," reduced to the unpleasant role of bystanders or the unattractive status of complainers, as Barack Obama makes history.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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