With apologies to Norma Desmond, President Obama is big, it’s liberalism that got small. Certainly the cult of personality and Obama’s disdain for his opponents have never been larger. But in his championing of a collectivist agenda, the left’s vision is, if one looks closely, reactionary and small.
Obama ignores economic growth and job creation. He is stoutly opposed to entitlement reform. His tax deal with Republicans was stuffed full of tax goodies for big business. In the mind-numbing repetition of identity politics and the endless lists of spending items there is nothing that contributes to the prosperity of the 21st-century economy. Regulations (Dodd-Frank, gun proposals) become ends unto themselves, disconnected from well-intentioned ends (a more stable financial system, reduced mass violence by mentally disturbed people). To regulate and to spend mean to be virtuous, regardless of whether people are helped. (To oppose useless or unhelpful regulation and to curb spending mean that one is heartless or downright evil.)
Obama’s big initiatives are bureaucratic exercises (his big idea on guns shrinks every day as liberal pundits refuse to acknowledge his assault-weapons ban is another old, failed policy). Is filling out forms for private gun sales really the apex of liberalism? “Climate control” is more government regulation dressed up with a bow and high-minded condescension toward coal, natural-gas and oil workers and businesses. In foreign policy, his world view is self-delusion (peace in our time!) in the service of retrenchment.
What vast endeavor, what shining future does that all offer? It’s embarrassing but inevitable that a self-described collectivist can’t really find anything grand to undertake with his collectivism. The really big ideas — entitlement reform, tax reform, education reform, energy independence and even immigration reform — are coming from the right, offering to expand opportunity, increase upward mobility and ignite economic growth. Meanwhile, like California, Obama’s welfare state takes more in taxes, delivers worse services, curbs economic growth, and shovels money into vast health and pension systems, the liabilities of which dwarf the citizenry’s productive activities. The highest goal? Don’t reform Medicare! For all that money he’s borrowed and spent, you’d think we would have ended illiteracy, cured cancer or built that moon station.
This leaves miles of running room for conservative reformers. In contrast to the liberal vision, they should seek nimble, effective government and dynamic, empowering policies that emphasize choice, upward mobility, and community and individual self-determination.
Those are two sides of the same coin. We can’t have a dynamic economy with a gargantuan debt and a deadening regulatory state. We won’t have resources for education and technology if discretionary spending is gobbled up by entitlement programs. Republicans can’t ignore federal fiscal reform or be indifferent to debt because, as students of conservatism know, it is essential to limit government (in size and cost) to open up space for private-sector dynamism, civic institutions, local and state government, and family choice.
Conservatives cannot realistically be anti-government (the market for libertarianism is small), but they should be in favor of limited, energetic government that does what it does well and supports and encourages a vibrant America beyond the Beltway. And it is in the states where the most dynamic governors in a generation are innovating and improving government and the lives of their residents.
Red-state governors, especially those with substandard schools and other services, do themselves and conservatives a disservice in claiming as their highest calling the elimination of taxes. Really, that’s what it is all about? Instead, they should follow the lead of current and past GOP governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Ohio’s John Kasich and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell in keeping taxes modest but in crafting pro-business policies, improving services and making possible a higher quality of life. (No one running for the presidency, by the way, is going to show that wiping out income tax is a good foundation for national leadership and realistic policymaking.)
Republicans these days say that they don’t need to change their principles, just their message. That’s partially right. They certainly need to change messengers, focus and rhetoric. But they also have to reconsider what is a core principle and which policies are central to those principles and which are outmoded, unwise or better left to states. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has shown, there is nothing “conservative” about keeping our current lawless, unfair immigration system. Once a battle has been lost (e.g., gay marriage, a federal Department of Education) a party that rails at reality soon seems looks clueless and obtuse. There is no conservative “principle” in fruitless battles and unattainable ends (any state that recognizes gay marriage is never going to unrecognize it).
The dreary statism that defines the most liberal president to hold office reminds us that there is still room for an innovative, forward-looking party. The country needs at least one party dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans by empowering them to achieve their ambitions and lead fulfilling lives. There is still a need for a party to prune government so it does not strangle the economy and civil institutions. If the GOP can be that party, it can win key policy debates and many elections in the years ahead.