by Yuval Levin
Be sure to read Rich’s Politico column on the president’s budget today. I’d add to it that one thing that struck me in reading the budget (beyond the particular fiscal and technical matters I raised here) is how remarkably devoid of ambition it is. With Obamacare enacted, it’s far from clear what the Left would seek to do next, and this budget suggests a profound aimlessness. Like the president’s re-election campaign, it lacks an agenda.
Now don’t get me wrong: Obamacare is a thoroughly ideological enterprise aimed at putting into effect some of the Left’s deepest economic assumptions and realizing ambitions that have driven progressives for decades. But that’s the point. With that law now on the books (and all the more so if it proves disastrously ill-designed in practice, as looks likely) it is not easy to say what the next big liberal ambition is except managing and preserving the existing structure of our welfare state. This is, to put it mildly, not an inspiring or even particularly interesting enterprise, and it is especially problematic for the Left, which far more than the Right expects inspiration and excitement out of its political enterprises. And it’s worse than that, because managing the welfare state without reforming it in the coming years is not going to be easy at all. This inertia budget, in which the president proposes to do basically nothing new, still has the federal government spending 37.1 percent more in Obama’s last year in office than it did in his predecessor’s last year in office. By the end of the budget window, in 2023, this budget proposes to have the federal government spend 89.7 percent more than it did in Bush’s final year (and 53.6 percent more than it will this year).
And that’s under very rosy assumptions about Obamacare and about health-care costs more generally. It is far more likely that the coming years will require the Left to be making excuses for the meltdown of America’s health-care system while blindly resisting reforms to the old-age entitlements, insisting the fiscal crisis is a fantasy, and pursuing no large goal or ambition beyond that even as federal spending grows and grows. That really doesn’t sound like fun.
I don’t think serious people on the Left have begun to contend with this problem. For the moment, there is still a kind of wonk chic on the Left, reminiscent of the “best and brightest” moment of the early 60s in which the very idea of managing the large machine of government feels cool and charming and more a part of the youth culture of hipsterism than of the middle-aged culture of the tenured federal bureaucracy. That has helped to shield some liberals from the implications of the fact that they are moving from idealistic ambition to a reactionary and defensive war of attrition. But if that’s all you’re doing, and if it’s not going well, it can’t be easy to sustain the charm of charts, and it can’t be easy to make your case to the larger public—for which charts have never been charming anyway.
Whatever you think of the vision of the Ryan budget (and I think very highly of it myself), it is moved by a vision of American government rooted in a vision of American life and begins to set out an ambitious governing agenda. Its aim is to preserve the relationship between society and government that characterized the postwar compact in America—an economy growing at roughly its postwar pace, a federal government of roughly its postwar size and functions (including today’s entitlement programs made sustainable), and an energetic and flourishing civil society—and it is built on the recognition that sustaining that will require significant reforms and modernizations of how key government programs do what they do. It’s not nearly the totality of what conservatism needs to offer today, of course—as fiscal policy could never be the totality of a vision of government. Republicans will need especially to speak to the concerns of the middle class, and its desire for greater security and growth. That work is very far from finished—indeed, it is not particularly well begun. But that part of the agenda should be rooted in much the same general approach to our public problems: An application of conservative ideas to today’s real challenges.
The Democrats aren’t offering the middle class anything either, of course, and the politics of their coalition will make it harder for them to modernize their agenda than it will be for the Republicans. Indeed, as the president’s budget suggests, they can’t quite be said to have an agenda at all at this point. They confront instead the dangerous specter of exhaustion, which any political movement must fear, but a movement of the Left above all.