Jonah Goldberg writes that recent events seem to be disproving the "rule" (by which I think he means conventional wisdom) that "hard economic times make big government more popular." Obama took over during an economic crisis and expanded the size and reach of government, but the idea of more and bigger government doesn't seem any more popular now than it did five years ago. I think that the "rule" is mostly wrong and I suspect Goldberg does too. I think it is closer to the truth to say that the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when hard times strike, tends to decline and the popularity of the public philosophy of those in power when things get better tends to increase. The irony is that, depending on how events go, the idea that "hard economic times make big government more popular" may seem more plausible (without actually being more true) in 2012 than now.
The historical record when it comes to "big government" and economic downturns seems pretty complicated even if you simplify by only looking at the downturns and who the public voted for in response to those downturns. As Goldberg well knows the post-WWI economic downturn under Wilson was immediately followed by the election of the lower taxing and lower spending (and quite popular) Harding/Coolidge regime. Now as Reihan Salam might say, there are causal density issues here. There were lots of reasons for voters to repudiate the Wilson administration and liberals have their own self-serving narrative of pro-business stooges being elected by isolationist bumpkins, but the record is clear for those who want to see. The voters, during a severe economic downturn, replaced a high spending and high taxing administration with one that sharply cut both taxes and spending.
FDR would seem to prove the rule that people turn to big government in hard times, but it is more complicated than that. The role of the actual performance of the economy and the assigning of praise and blame to public philosophies for economic events is important to understanding how FDR's administration made his expansion of government so popular and so enduring. FDR's taking office coincided with the resumption of economic growth and increasing employment (though both from much reduced levels.) This surely had something to do with his popularity and the popularity of his program. Bigger government seemed to be making economic life better. This is also a reason why liberal intellectuals worked so hard to portray the progressive Republican Herbert Hoover as a doctrinaire economic noninterventionist. If limited government (personified in Herbert Hoover) could be tied to the Depression and big government (in the form of FDR) could be tied to the recovery, then liberals would have a rhetorical weapon whose usefulness would outlive both Hoover and FDR.
Reagan broke the rules. He was elected during economic hard times (stagflation) and in some ways, things got even tougher in his first year as President (inflation declined but the economy went into a deep recession and unemployment spiked.) Reagan sharply cut taxes, slightly cut the growth of domestic discretionary spending, and supported the Federal Reserve's anti-inflation policies. If you believed the theory that voters want big government during hard times, Reagan experience in 1982 would seem to prove you right. Reagan's job approval rating fell to 36% by the end of 1982 (Source: "The Reagan Presidency and American Public Opinion" by James Ceaser in The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance.") He fought the rules and the rules won - except they didn't. The economy recovered, Reagan got a great deal of the credit and he won a huge reelection victory. Once again, the perceptions of what seemed to fail and succeed mattered, which was why liberals in the late 80s and early 90s invested so much time and energy arguing that the Reagan recovery didn't really happen or that it was only a blip or that only greedy people noticed. To the extent that the economic difficulties of the late 70 - to early 80s were blamed on high taxing, high spending, pro-inflation politics, and to the extent that the resolution of those difficulties were tied to lower taxes, lower spending (mostly notional here), anti-inflation politics, the terms of the debate shifted rightwards for decades.
Obama seems to be combining the experiences of both Reagan and FDR. Taking over during the worst recession since the Great Depression, Obama got Congress to pass both a huge stimulus bill and the first step in the government takeover of the health care sector. He took over two of the Big Three American auto companies. He petitioned Congress to pass a combination of taxes and subsidies that would increase government power over the energy sector. The result has been a slow and steady decline in his job approval rating. Even though Obama has tried to act like a junior FDR, the labor market's performance has more closely resembled what happened in the first half of Reagan's first term. Reagan's job approval rating in the July of his second year was 42%. Obama's job approval in Real Clear Politics polling average has been between 46.3% and 48.0% for the July of his second year. FDR's party gained seats in Congress during his first midterm elections. Obama's party (like Reagan's in 1982) will almost certainly lose seat in 2010.But that doesn't mean that Obama and the conventional wisdom that "hard economic times make big government more popular" won't both make a big comeback. If the labor market recovers even a little (down to the low 7s) by the summer of 2012, we can expect, absent some kind of unforeseen disaster, for Obama's job approval ratings to rise. Perhaps more importantly, there will be a powerful narrative pushed by the Democrats and liberal-leaning media to ascribe the improvement in economic conditions to the stimulus, Obamacare, etc. and establish that big government is what people want during tough economic times, and that even bigger government will lead to even more growth and that the next economic downturn will require even bigger big government.
Reihan Salam points us to an old column by Mark Thompson post in which Thompson argues that conservatives usually failed to offer effective health care reform proposals because they were in thrall to the radical antistatism of Ayn Rand. I think that is false and could lead to confusion about the course of the debates (over decades) that led to Obamacare.
I'm going from my personal experiences both as a consumer of right-leaning media and from conversations with conservatives over the last twenty years, but my impression is that the reason radically reforming health care has not been a huge priority for most conservatives (as opposed to some wonks and members of Congress) is because most conservatives were mostly happy with the existing system. It seemed like a private system. You worked for a private company that contracted your insurance to a private insurance company. You went to your doctor who was not a government employee. The system of tax subsidies and regulations that made this somewhat unnatural system the default was mostly invisible. You had access to timely and very high quality care. You heard stories about lines and waiting lists in the socialized medical systems of Britain and Canada. America had a system of private health care and it was the best system in the world. Rand had little or nothing to do with it. In fact, if you were to try to get all Randian and eliminate the tax subsidy for employer-provided health insurance for most conservatives and also Medicare for their parents (not replace them with other, more consumer-driven systems that include government subsidies, just get rid of them as Rand would want) most of these same conservatives would try to tear you apart - politically of course.
The system had problems. For one thing, premiums seemed to be going up to quickly. Both the left and right had explanations and likely suspects for the rise in premiums. The suspects included greedy insurance companies, greedy trial lawyers, greedy pharmaceutical companies, illegal immigrants, and uninsured people who were clogging up the high-cost emergency rooms. People mostly weren't told by conservative popularizers and mostly didn't want to hear that much of the spike in premiums was inherent in the system of comprehensive employer-provided health insurance that conservatives were defending from liberal attempts to "socialize" medicine.
That isn't to say that conservatives weren't in favor of some changes or that the changes weren't worthwhile. They were in favor of tort reform, regulatory changes to make it easier for small businesses to work together to buy insurance at lower rates, and regulatory changes that would allow people to buy a wider range of insurance products (including high deductible/lower premium plans) and bypass state-level regulations that were driving up the cost of health insurance. I remember some mentions of Health Savings Accounts, but not in any detail. But the conservative reforms weren't really the priority on health care policy. Stopping the liberal Democrats from destroying America's best-in-the-world private health care system was the priority. Oh, the Democrats are filibustering health care reform? That just shows that the Democrats are in the pockets of the trial lawyers and don't really care about real health care reform. Lets move on to cutting marginal tax rates.
In any analysis of how most conservatives acted on the health care issue from 1993-2010, I don't think you can overstate the investment of most rank-and-file conservatives to the existing system. There were good (or at least understandable) reasons why the Republican congressional leaders offered a plan of tort reform and interstate purchasing of health insurance rather that the Ryan health care plan as their alternative to Obamacare. That is where most conservatives probably are, and any plan that will destroy the system of employer-provided health insurance (which the Ryan plan would) will face intense public skepticism - including from conservatives who now get their health care through their employers. And this gives some idea of the demands of finesse and public education that conservatives wonks and politicians will face in advancing the cause of free market-oriented heath care policy.
We don't have a missile defense that can handle threats from Iran. So warn former CIA Director James Woolsey and Rebeccah Heinrichs. The Bush Administration was building one, but Obama scrapped it, replacing it with one that "offers no added protection for the U.S. until 2020. That's almost certainly too little too late." Moreover, might the new Obama strategic arms agreement with Russia limit our sovereign right of self-defense?
Rebeccah Ramey Heinrichs is a former Ashbrook Scholar. A former manager of the House Bipartisan Missile Defense Caucus, she is now an adjunct fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. (She is also officially a DC beautiful person, a status she indeed holds by nature.)
Accumulating Lincoln quotations, Tony Blankley spotlights Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's dismissal of the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence for understanding the Constitution. Will indignant Republican Senators rally around the principles of their Founder? Alas, what makes one think they will this time?
Blankley: "Without those rights, the body of law is a corpse - a soulless, purposeless, manipulable, disposable, dead, material thing. If Ms. Kagan does not know that, then she knows nothing of our law." Again, the same condemnation can be made of politicians of all parties. Moreover, does any law school teach the proper respect for the Declaration of Independence? In that sense, former Harvard Law Dean Kagan has a bipartisan following.
Here's a poignant cinematic reminder of an earlier Brit's Lincolnian devotion to American principles. (Charles Laughton's Ruggles is a British servant won by a Westerner in a poker game abroad.)
Not since the incident at Chappaquiddick derailed the Ted Kennedy for President boomlet of 1969 has a political movement imploded so fast and so messily as the green crusade to stop global warming. . . The greens, it is increasingly clear, bet the ranch on the Copenhagen process. That horrible meltdown, perhaps the biggest and most chaotic public embarrassment in the history of multilateral summits, turned climate change from global poster boy to global pariah.
Literature, Poetry, and Books