Politics & Policy

The End of Liberalism

The president's convention speech is a conservative charter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the September 27, 2004, issue of National Review.

What if they held a revolution, and nobody noticed? Most pundits have said that President Bush, in his convention speech, got bogged down in a “laundry list” of domestic-policy proposals. These proposals were generally understood merely as an answer to criticisms that Bush had not set forth his second-term agenda. Even conservatives sympathetic to the president have complained about the various spending initiatives contained in the speech. (The five or six conservatives proud to support big government applauded the same things.) These sorts of commentaries have missed a rather large point. President Bush did something extraordinary at Madison Square Garden: He proposed a practical plan to end American liberalism (as we know it).

Obviously, Bush did not explicitly promise an end to liberalism. That would have sounded frighteningly martial, and, in any case, most voters do not understand the world in terms of such abstractions as “liberalism” and “conservatism.” So there are parts of Bush’s argument of particular interest to ideological conservatives that need to be filled in. Also, the drama of the speech was undercut by the fact that the president had discussed many of the domestic policies mentioned in it before, especially the most important of those policies, the introduction of personal investment accounts within Social Security. There was thus “nothing new” in the speech. Nothing, that is, except for a renewed commitment to those policies–which is not to be dismissed–and a framework for understanding them.

Perhaps it would be best to start with the short-term politics of the speech. In the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, it was widely suggested that Bush is vulnerable on the issue of jobs. The economic recovery has been slow to create them. The unemployment rate may be down, but the payroll survey each month keeps showing disappointing numbers of new jobs. Bush may have a shrewder understanding of his problem. In his speech, he acted as though neither the unemployment rate nor sluggish payroll growth was his major economic weakness. Rather, he spoke as though he thought the problem is economic insecurity. A small number of voters is unemployed; many more fear losing their jobs, and their health insurance.

That insecurity may be heightened when the economy is slow or in recession. But the baseline level of economic insecurity, in good times and bad, seems to have increased in recent years. Liberal social scientist Jacob Hacker has found that family incomes were five times more unstable in the mid 1990s than in the early 1970s. Since most people fear loss more than they look forward to gain, this rising instability is profoundly distressing. Hacker believes that his research points toward the need for a liberal agenda going far beyond anything John Kerry has proposed. (He wants an “Economic Security Act,” for starters.)

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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