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“Our Political System’s Ability to Act”


There is one point on which President Obama agreed with S&P in his statement this afternoon, and it is a point regarding which I think they are both profoundly mistaken: Both seem to believe that the problem with our system of government today is that it has become too gridlocked to allow for decisive action.
This is to take one of the best features of our system and treat it as one of the worst. The fact is, the American system of government is designed to restrain radical change. Our institutions are set up to oppose one another in ways that make sudden major steps unlikely, and that forces significant and lasting actions of the government to take the form of painful plodding. Our republic takes a lot of time to turn, and reaches decisions slowly, often over several election cycles and through a process of coming to terms.
We are now living with the consequences of a failure of that system in the mid-1960s. That failure did not occur (as some others have) because of a terrible war or a grave economic calamity. It happened in the midst of peace and prosperity. It had its roots in an unusual postwar elite consensus on social policy and in the catastrophic failure of the Republican Party to offer a plausible alternative to that consensus in the 1964 election. The result was a brief but significant explosion of policymaking that yielded the hasty and careless creation of a massive artifice of entitlement and discretionary programs we have come to know as the Great Society. The peculiar combination of factors that enabled that spurt of reckless activism did not last long, and our politics soon returned to a more balanced state in which the parties staunchly resist one another’s advances and change is relatively slow and measured. But precisely that return to normality has meant that the products of the Great Society have been very hard to undo or reform. Our system of government was never supposed to allow such hyperactivity, and so is not well equipped to reverse its excesses.
Our domestic politics in the coming years will be focused intently on picking up the pieces of the terrible disaster unleashed on us by the Great Society—and especially by the design of the two large health-care entitlements created in 1965: Medicare and Medicaid. It has been clear for decades that those two programs will drive our country to fiscal ruin if they are not substantially reformed. The general outline of such a reform (especially of Medicare, which poses the bigger fiscal challenge of the two) has been clear since at least the mid-1990s. But such a reform would require a tremendous political exertion, and our system of government is designed (with good reason) to make such exertions uncommon and unlikely. Having overcome the structural barriers to activism inherent in our system in order to create these programs, we now face the challenge of overcoming them again in order to reform these programs and restrain their growth. The enactment of the Great Society programs required a liberal electoral triumph so overwhelming that it turned a significant portion of the Republican Party in Congress into a dazed band of fellow travelers. The second will very likely require much the same but in the opposite direction: a no doubt brief conservative moment in our politics that will make meaningful entitlement reform temporarily achievable.
Achieving that essential but barely possible course correction will require the Republican Party to be focused on reforming our health-care entitlements while encouraging economic growth in the coming years, to offer a program that is both substantively and politically plausible, and to go out of its way to entice some meaningful minority of the Democratic Party’s politicians to go along at least in part. It will also require a political moment that in just about every other respect happens to favor Republicans. That means it will require a very rare combination of preparation, prudence, intelligence, and luck. Republicans have so far done a surprisingly adequate job of preparing themselves for the possibility of such a moment. They have much more work to do—in terms of both policy substance and political argument. The next election might just turn out to offer the favorable winds they will require, so it is essential that they continue doing that work. Our future prosperity demands it.
But let’s be clear: The problem is not partisan bickering or the slow pace of change. It is not that our system of government is not pliable enough to allow for expert technocratic administration. The problem is that the technocrats were able to take the reins briefly in the middle of the last century, and we are now having a terrible time trying to fix the mess they created and setting the country back on a sustainable course of prosperity and freedom.