I’m trying to think of the right analogy to describe David Frum’s dilemma. He’s like a man who has disembarked from a train and is standing on the station platform watching as the train slowly disappears over the horizon. Except the train is not continuing on, but has reversed itself to go back to from where it came. Or, he is like King Oedipus, who realized that he had slept with his mother and murdered his father. He brought the plague upon the country, however unwittingly, and now must decide whether or not to gouge out his eyes. Or he is the passenger who confidently assured everyone else that it was safe to ignore the “Bridge Is Out” sign, but now realizes his error and can’t get the driver to listen to him. These are the kinds of impressions I had while reading Frum’s reaction to Yuval Levin’s piece in National Affairs.
It’s good that the scales have fallen from Frum’s eyes. Maybe, these days, he is less Oedipus Rex and more the blind prophet Tiresias, who tells the king of his fate but is not believed. In his long thoughtful piece, the most important part is where he quotes G.K. Chesterton’s saying that we should not tear down any fences until we first know why they were built. It’s an explicit acknowledgment that the structures of the modern welfare state were built in reaction to the Great Depression and that they remain important even in boom times when we are tempted to feel they are extravagances we cannot afford. Here we can actually watch the scales falling from his eyes:
Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.
Why not three cheers? Perhaps he’s still holding back. Yet, he recognizes that the Republican train has left the station.
In the interval since I started writing this response to Yuval Levin’s important piece in National Affairs, the Ryan budget plan has been approved by the House of Representatives on a near-total party line vote. Ideas like those endorsed by Yuval Levin are now the formal position of the Republican party. My guess is that the party’s presidential nominee will attempt to tip-toe away from that position in 2012, but who knows? Anyway, it will not matter. President Obama’s billion-dollar campaign will ensure that Republicans are thoroughly identified with it.
So Yuval Levin’s proposition is the proposition that Republicans will take to the country. Perhaps that is as it should be. Since the economic and electoral disasters of 2006-2009, Republicans have veered in a sharply libertarian direction. Why not put that new direction to the test of democracy?
Yuval Levin proposes ending the social insurance system in this country. No more universal benefits like Medicare and Social Security. Everything is means-tested, no benefit is guaranteed. That is Paul Ryan’s vision, too. And that means it is the Republican Party’s vision in this election cycle. Frum correctly warns that danger lies ahead.
I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?
I hope Frum is correct. But to get the American Republican Party to behave like the Tories they would have to take the “movement” out of “movement conservatism.” They’d have to become the loyal opposition again, rather than an apocalyptic party of total obstruction. Based on Mitt Romney’s victory speech last night, none of that is happening in this election cycle:
President Obama wants to “fundamentally transform” America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great…
…I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.
The GOP is headed over a cliff, the only question is whether they’ll succeed in taking the rest of us with them.