by Yuval Levin
With his customary clarity, Charles Krauthammer today cuts through the most annoying cliché of the debt-ceiling fight and one of the most irritating lazy mental gestures of the age of Obama: the notion that our system of government is broken and failing in its basic work. As Krauthammer puts it:
Spare me the hysteria. What happened was that the 2010 electorate, as represented in Congress, forced Washington to finally confront the national debt. It was a triumph of democratic politics—a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.But only partial expression. Debt hawks are upset that the final compromise doesn’t do much. But it shouldn’t do much. They won only one election. They were entrusted, as of yet, with only one-half of one branch of government.But they did begin to turn the aircraft carrier around. The process did bequeath a congressional super-committee with extraordinary powers to reduce debt. And if that fails, the question—how much government, how much debt—will go to the nation in November 2012. Which is also how it should be.
Just so. The American system of government is designed to restrain radical change and, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.” Our institutions are set up to oppose one another in ways that make sudden major steps unlikely, and that force 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.
The yearning for a cleaner, smoother process more amendable to technocratic control which is so central to the president’s rhetoric now (and a form of which was also at the heart of S&P’s defense of its downgrade of American credit last week) is a rejection of the American system of government dressed up as a defense of that system—a favorite gambit of progressives since at least Herbert Croly. At the core of its contemporary iteration on the left is a misreading of American politics in the two decades following World War II. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama speaks of a “time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.” He has in mind in particular the early and middle 1960s—a period he suggests was the high-water mark of the American regime.
But in fact, that period marked a temporary but very costly failure of the adversarial controls essential to the American system. 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 our governing institutions and 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, but politicians of both parties have tried to ignore and deny the necessity of such reforms. Indeed, the Democrats just last year moved to double down on the structure and logic of those failed entitlements. But the basic math of insolvency is becoming so painfully clear that even some of our leaders can no longer simply ignore it. The general outline of 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.
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 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.
Abject pining for a system friendlier to some refined mix of bureaucracy and autocracy is bad enough in the mouths of Wall Street technocrats, but their civic illiteracy is at least somewhat understandable: Their job is to look out for obstacles to the smooth humming of the financial system, and it’s easy to see how the boisterous pandemonium of our republic might appear to be such an obstacle if you haven’t thought through the alternatives. But the president’s attitude is far less excusable. “The last thing we need is Congress spending more time arguing in D.C.,” Obama told an audience yesterday. Surely he can think of a few things we need even less than that.