Politics & Policy

The Thirty Years’ War

(Lane Erickson/Dreamstime)
What this country needs is a war of attrition against the welfare state and entrenched incompetency.

The best job in politics is being a senator in the minority party. You can be as philosophically pure as you like, or, if ideological cleanliness is not your thing, bask in the praise that comes from being a John McCain–style partisan of compromise. You can give a bunch of satisfying speeches, pretend to run for president even though you’re not, or pretend you’re not running for president even though you are. You’re in the Senate, where things go slowly by constitutional design, and you’re in the minority, so nobody expects you to really do much of anything.

Which is to say, there’s a very good chance — a 72 percent chance — that life is about to get a lot less fun for Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, et al., with Republicans taking a majority, if only a bare one, in the Senate.

That should be a relief for governors and probable presidential candidates such as Mike Pence, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal. Unlike senators, governors have to do things — “governor stuff” — which means that they have to make compromises, that they cannot be ideologically pure, and that they have to live in the real world. That leaves them vulnerable to puritanical homilies from senators, as in the ridiculous 2012 Republican primary that found former senator Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain, both of whom were far from the levers of power for excellent reasons, preening and posturing as Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, a governor and a former governor who had faced very different challenges, were raked over the coals for having taken reality into account as executives. Romney’s rivals pronounced themselves shocked that Romney had governed as though he were in one of the country’s most left-leaning states, and Perry’s opponents were scandalized that the governor of Texas took into account the large number of illegal immigrants residing there.

I like Senators Paul, Cruz, and Rubio; each has his own virtues and admirable characteristics. But none of them has done one single thing of interest in office other than campaign for president since about five minutes after being sworn into the Senate.

If indeed Republicans do enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress next term — what will they do with it?

There will be enormous pressure for them to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Right desires catharsis, and it demands a ritual repudiation of Barack Obama and all that he stands for. Conservative populists want to read the word “repealed” on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times, to rub Democrats’ noses in it. The smart thing to do would be to quietly gut Obamacare, enacting something like Avik Roy’s health-care plan under the guise of fine-tuning the ACA. But if you have a Republican presidential primary in your near future, there’s no margin in doing the smart thing.

And there’s a kind of emotional symmetry at play: The Democrats do not often exhibit the courage of their convictions, but they knew that the ACA and how the fight over it went down were setting them up for an almighty smiting in 2010, and they did it anyway, because they thought it was worth it. Barack Obama was willing to risk having the health-care law be his last significant domestic-policy project as president. There are some on the right who pine for a similar demonstration of commitment from Republicans, even if that means that a 2014 congressional majority is short-lived.

The Democrats did not build the welfare state all at once in 1965, and Republicans didn’t have an honest shot at repealing it all at once in 1995. Everybody has a big plan, and Washington is full of magic bullets: leash the Fed, enact the Fair Tax, seal the borders. But what’s needed — what might actually result in a stronger American order — is a thirty years’ war of attrition against the welfare state and entrenched incompetency. Federal crimes and misdemeanors ranging from the IRS scandal to the fumbling response to Ebola suggest very strongly that we have management and oversight problems as well as ideological ones, but holding oversight hearings long after (one hopes) Ebola is out of domestic headlines provides very little juice for a presidential candidate facing a restive base all hopped up on Hannity. Being the guy who gets up and demands the repeal of Obamacare might get you elected president; being the guy who fixes the damned thing simply makes you a target for talk-radio guys who have never run for nor held an elected office but who will nonetheless micturate upon your efforts from a great height.

Everybody wants to run for president. But somebody has to save the country.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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