Politics & Policy

America Just Checked into Rehab

If Republicans do not restrain spending, in two years it will be their turn — again.

On Tuesday, voters rejected President Obama’s attempt to remake America in the image of an imploding Europe — not just by overwhelmingly electing Republican candidates to the House, but by preferring dozens of maverick conservatives who ran against the establishment.

Why the near-historic rebuke? Out-of-control spending, unchecked borrowing, vast new entitlements, and unsustainable debt — all at a time of economic stagnation.

So what is next? Like the recovering addict who checks himself into rehab, a debt-addicted America just snapped out of its borrowing binge, is waking up with the shakes, and hopes there is still a chance of recovery.

It won’t be easy. Obama and his Democratic Congress ran up nearly $3 trillion in new debt in just 21 months — after running a disingenuous 2008 campaign that falsely promised to rein in the fiscal irresponsibility that had been rampant during the spendthrift Bush administration.

So the voters intervened and sent America in for rehab treatment. In our three-step road to recovery, we, the sick patient, must first end the denial, then accept the tough medicine, and finally change the entrenched habits that caused the addiction.

First, voters did not reject Obama’s agenda because he was too centrist, borrowed and spent too little money, or did not more vigorously pursue unpopular agenda items like cap-and-trade and blanket amnesty. Nor did the Democratic meltdown happen because of Obama’s inability to articulate his agenda. The vision itself — not the talking points — was the problem.

Obama failed miserably to keep the nation’s trust. After just 21 months, the country concluded that he was an extremist and that his attempts to manage the economy through massive borrowing, rapid growth in government size and spending, assumption of private enterprise, and serial harangues against business and the rich had turned a recession into a crisis of confidence and a near-depression. For some strange reason, Obama thought the cure for Republican big spending was European-style socialism, when in fact voters wanted an end to Bush-era borrowing and waste.

Second, not being Obama will no longer be enough for the ascendant Republicans, many of them political novices or Tea Party mavericks skeptical of both parties. These outsiders told outraged voters that America will have to step up and start controlling spending in a manner Republicans never did as a majority in Congress from 2001 to 2006. Perhaps a good symbolic start would be to cut back on popular pet programs — agricultural subsidies, for example — whose end the Republic will survive. This would be iconic proof of congressional willingness to alienate powerful special interests. Social Security, Medicare, and some defense programs all have to be on the table.

If conservatives plan to cut taxes, they will no longer be able to convince the public that the resulting supply-side growth in the economy will eventually bring in more money and balance the budget. Instead, right from the start, the new House majority will have to demand that we pay as we go — every dollar lost in revenue will require a commensurate dollar cut in federal spending.

Republicans should be willing to be demagogued by a weakened Obama as heartless and cruel budget cutters — even if the president may well be the ultimate beneficiary by being able to run on the new theme of fiscal responsibility and a recovering economy in 2012.

Third, voters want their Congress and their president to end the pathological value system that got us into this mess. Instead of barnstorming the country handing out borrowed cash to favored constituencies and playing one identity group against another, the president had better stay in Washington, keep off Comedy Central and The View, and not come out to brag until he has cut unsustainable spending for all of us.

It should also be an embarrassment, not an honor, for members of Congress of either party to put their names on the latest pork-barrel projects. Instead of weekly newsletters from Washington that boast of bringing home the bacon, voters now prefer hard proof that their government spent only what it took in. Any politician can promise a new project, an expanded entitlement, or a special-interest tax break paid for with someone else’s money, but only a statesman can explain exactly how it is all to be paid for.

So for now, voters have said that they are sick of profligate Democrats. But if Republicans do not get that message regarding fiscal restraint, in two years it will be their turn — again.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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