Saturday, July 30, 2011

Conservatism and the Debt Ceiling Debate

Two traditional conservative columnists have some decent quotes about why Boehner's approach to the debt limit was the correct one. But I think we need to tease out hidden assumptions about what the tea party supporters are thinking about the problem. Specifically, I don't think that we have thought through the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling. Those consequences are neither as severe as Democrats predict, nor as mild as some Republicans would state. I think the key issue is that we have collectively built a large part of the economy around the government re-distribution of income through social security, medicare, and other payments. These payments, along with interest on the debt, take up almost all of the current revenue of the federal government. While I intensely dislike this situation, one cannot deny that huge economic dislocation would occur if such transfers were to suddenly stop. Further, because they would affect so many voters, a ground swell of anger would cause enough of them to inundate the Congress with their outrage, that an increase in the debt ceiling with no spending cuts seems the most likely outcome. Further, such economic dislocation would be bad for the country's economy in the short term, even if salutary in the long run. In the long run, we'll all be dead, meaning we might not get there. Given this likely scenario, the Republicans are forcing the issue admirably well and defining the terms of the debate. But just as Obama was seriously wounded by his "victory" with Obamacare, so too will the tea party be hurt if we shut down the federal government over the debt ceiling debate. This is why I thought that all Republicans should get behind Boehner, to give him the maximum flexibility to deal with the Democrats and achieve what is possible.

On to the quotes. First, Peggy Noonan:
The [Republican] establishment was being conservative in the Burkean sense: acknowledge reality, respect it, and make the most progress possible within it. This has not always been true of them. They spent the first decade of this century backing things a truly conservative party would not have dreamed of—careless wars, huge spending and, most scandalously, a dreamy and unconservative assumption that it would all work out because life is sweet and the best thing always happens. They were mostly led by men and women who had never been foreclosed on and who assumed good luck, especially unearned good luck, would continue. They were fools, and they lost control of their party when the tea party rose up, rebuking and embarrassing them. Then the tea party saved them by not going third party in 2009-10. And now the establishment has come forward to save the tea party, by inching it away from the cliff and reminding it the true battles are in 2012, and after.
Charles Krauthammer.

We’re only at the midpoint. Obama won a great victory in 2008 that he took as a mandate to transform America toward European-style social democracy. The subsequent counterrevolution delivered to that project a staggering rebuke in November 2010. Under our incremental system, however, a rebuke delivered is not a mandate conferred. That awaits definitive resolution, the rubber match of November 2012.

I have every sympathy with the conservative counterrevolutionaries. Their containment of the Obama experiment has been remarkable. But reversal — rollback, in Cold War parlance — is simply not achievable until conservatives receive a mandate to govern from the White House.

While we have made great strides and indeed are changing not just America, but the entire world's view of the role of government, we simply cannot overplay our hands without more elections. It is the nature of our republic to prevent radical change without sufficient election cycles to allow a party or cause to consolidate power. Unfortunately, the current leftist version of the Democratic party did just that in 2006 and 2008. To undo that harm, we need to win more victories in 2012. In my view, shutting down the government does not advance that cause. What will advance the cause is a compromise that continues to move us in the right direction, but keeps the issue alive for the next election cycle and forces the President to held accountable for his lack of leadership.

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