William Voegeli wrote a book about the ever-growing welfare state in the United States and throughout the Western world titled “Never Enough.” In the tea party, we hear the countervailing cry, “Enough!”
Everywhere it’s been established, the welfare state has proven itself perpetually self-aggrandizing. Voegeli writes, “The American trend from 1940 to 2007 — steady growth of both the economy and the portion of the economy devoted to the welfare state — is evident in 12 other modern, prosperous democracies from 1980 to 2003.”
The tea party bids to stand athwart this long-standing, seemingly inexorable trend. Even Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric and intentions were forthrightly against big government, managed only to slow the growth of welfare-state spending to a rate of 0.9 percent annually over eight years — a stupendous accomplishment in the context of its otherwise routinely robust growth.
To achieve more than this will require a massive Republican sweep in the fall, followed up by a win in 2012. It will take masterly feats of public persuasion, coupled with countless victories in budgetary hand-to-hand combat — all sustained over time. Liberal defenders of the status quo will have history, inertia, and proven scare tactics on their side. But, as Barack Obama likes to say, make no mistake: The rise of the tea party puts the fundamental direction of American government in play in a way it hasn’t been since perhaps 1981.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way after Obama’s election. The financial crisis, though, didn’t discredit the free market so much as the government policies that stoked the housing bubble and bailed out the banks and the auto companies. The much-anticipated crisis of capitalism quickly became an impending crisis of government debt, as Washington leveraged itself to the hilt in an era of painful private deleveraging.
With entitlements on an already unsustainable course, Obama added a new one in his health-care program, and sold it with every ounce of hubris and dishonesty he could muster. If tea partiers had a plant in the White House on a Leninist mission to make things worse before they can improve, they couldn’t have done much better than the Man from Hope and Change.
After a similar uprising in 1994, Bill Clinton famously triangulated. But he hadn’t done much. In his first two years, there was a modest deficit-reduction package, a free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and a crime bill that paid for new cops for states and localities. He was a blissfully free man compared with Obama, who is tethered to the mast of his hideously inaptly named Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Democrats passed the bill believing two axioms of the ever-expanding welfare state: Any new program becomes popular over time and is never repealed. The first hasn’t yet proven out, and if Republicans take Congress, the second will be put to the test. Everything since the bill’s passage has served to make its reversal more likely rather than less. It continues to languish in the polls, and the embattled Democrats who still talk about it are the ones who voted against it.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi surely knew she’d lose some seats by insisting on passage of the health-care law, but she couldn’t have known she’d risk displacing the tectonic plates of American politics. If there’s going to be a U-turn in American government, the rise of the tea-party movement is its necessary precondition. In retrospect, if $1 trillion deficits and an increase in government spending from 20 percent to 25 percent of GDP didn’t bring people out into the streets, it would have been lights out for limited-government conservatism.
It’s become a trope that tea-party candidates don’t have an agenda. That’s not quite fair. “We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few,” Lyndon Johnson said in 1964, on the cusp of the Great Society. Take his statement and turn it on its head, and you have the thrust of the tea-party agenda. Or, in a word: Enough.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please write firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.