The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

History Is Calling, but the Phone Keeps Ringing at 3 a.m.


In recent years, our friends on the left would sometimes cite George W. Bush’s statements on the campaign trail in 2000 that he intended to enact a “humble” foreign policy and ask, with a scoff, “What happened?” Of course, 9/11 happened, and suddenly anything resembling humility wasn’t up to the task of confronting a band of killers and their Taliban protectors. No matter how much President Bush may have wanted to devote his presidency to an agenda of tax cuts, not leaving children behind, and reforming Social Security, the historical moment demanded a war president who was willing to tear through the unsavory corners of the Middle East and rattle every cage from Tripoli to Lahore.

Presidents don’t always get to pick what their presidencies are ultimately about. A commander-in-chief takes the oath, and then the world throws challenges at him that were barely on the radar screen during the campaign.

It had been a while since I had read John Ellis’s blog – update more frequently, man! – but I think he’s hit on something about how what Obama wants to do, and what the country desperately needs at this moment, are not even distant cousins:

It’s not a staff issue that is causing the President’s political deflation. And it’s not a communications issue (as in: if only the Obama Administration communicated their ideas better, everything would be okay). It’s not even a political issue; the GOP doesn’t have a national act to speak of and Democrats continue to hold solid majorities in both Houses of Congress. The Obama Administration’s problem is narrative.

Specifically, the Grand Narrative of our time is The Reckoning and the Restructuring. The Reckoning is all this debt coming home to roost. The Restructuring is what we’re going to do about it.

The Reckoning is plain for all to see. Consumers are broke, companies are reeling under massive debt loads, and the US government is underwater as never before. Compounding these problems is an avalanche of unfunded liabilities that will soon come due. To cite just one small example, for the first time in its history, Social Security will run cash negative this year. The cost of Medicare is set to explode as baby boomers retire. You know all this. There’s no point repeating all the scary numbers.

The Reckoning requires restructuring. Restructuring is not avoidable, it is inevitable. The sooner we do it, the less painful it will be for all concerned. Specifically, we must decide how to make our pension system (Social Security) and our current national health care system (Medicare and Medicaid) sustainable. We must restructure our debt. We must get 15% more performance out of our military on 15% less budget. We must get 25% more performance out of all other government services on 25% less expenditure.

In addition, we need to think about what taxes to raise, whether we sell land, whether we acquire nation-states or territories (Africa states? Siberian land?), whether we merge with Canada to form a more robust (and energy independent) mega-nation. These are the big issues of US restructuring. And they are all on the table.

Except they are not. The Obama Administration keeps talking at us like its 1998 and we can have a “green” jobs program and national health insurance and “cap and trade” legislation and $250 million criminal proceedings for homicidal Islamic psychopaths in downtown Manhattan. We don’t have $250 million for the KSM trial in Manhattan. Everybody knows that except, apparently, the Obama Administration.

Bingo. Almost every industry and sector of society has been going through wrenching changes in the past two years, and sometimes for quite a few years before that:  print media, the television networks, the auto industry, the music industry, publishing, both residential and commercial real estate, the energy sector, etc. And yet there’s one area where it’s been business as usual, or perhaps even a time of growth and expansion. As Rich notes, “It used to be said that the Great Depression wasn’t so bad, if you had a job. The Great Recession has practically been a boom, if you have a government job.”

It’s not sustainable. Of course, as I said earlier this month, “unsustainable is the new normal.” We’re having a reckoning, but President Obama isn’t all that interested in it; he wants to believe that a full, thriving economic recovery, along with rejuvenated tax revenues, is just around the corner.

I’m willing to bet that Walter Russell Mead’s grocery list is full of fascinating historical allusions, but he’s hit some similar notes in a few lengthy posts about what he calls “the blue beast” – a social model that defined our country for much of the last century, based upon large, stable entities – unionized oligarchies, big corporations, an ever-growing civil service, lifetime employment, etc. But that era has come to an end, and much of our political debate in the past decades is about trying to artificially extend the lifespan of the blue system by taking from the non-blue parts, or moving on to some other way of doing things:

Democratic policy is increasingly limited to one goal: feeding the blue beast. The great public-service providing institutions of our society – schools, universities, the health system, and above all government at municipal, state and federal levels – are built blue and think blue. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party thinks its job is to make them bigger and keep them blue. Bringing the long green to Big Blue: that’s what it’s all about.

Three problems: we can’t afford it, people know that, and we desperately need the things that Big Blue can’t give us.

Blue institutions aren’t productive enough and efficient enough to provide the services we need. There’s a hard and bitter truth here: workers in these sectors are going to have to accept lower wages and less security going forward – and they will have to produce more than they do now. Much more. This sounds draconian and harsh, but with a relative handful of exceptions everybody else in the United States has been facing this reality for the last generation.

This has turned into a massive political problem for Democrats because more and more people are waking up to the fact that this just doesn’t work. We don’t have the money to keep throwing more and more of it into dysfunctional public schools, overpriced state colleges and government at all levels. In the competitive world we all live in now, our society has no choice but to learn how to do these things much more cheaply. Otherwise the blue sector will drag the whole country down with it. This is part of what drives the Tea Parties: there’s a sense out there that the time for careful, limited reform is past. We need a crowbar, not a scalpel, to fix the blue beast.

Yet Democrats are right about one very important thing. We actually do need (most of) the services that the blue beast seeks to provide. We really do need good government at all three levels. We really do need more and better education. We need better health care and better access to it. The Tea Party movement is more about tearing down the blue beast than about building something that can take its place and until and unless Republicans figure this out the country will shift unhappily between two political parties that it dislikes and mistrusts.

I understand public skepticism about whether Republicans will come up with new, innovative solutions. But the Democratic party can’t rethink its dedication to the Blue Beast; it is the Blue Beast, and if it’s going to shrink replace and reform all the institutions that fuel it, it might as well cease to exist.

Tags: Barack Obama , Bill Richardson , Chris Dodd , Hillary Clinton , Horserace , Joe Biden , John Edwards , John McCain , Mitt Romney , Rudy Giuliani , Sarah Palin , Something Lighter , Tommy Thompson


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