The Corner

Politics & Policy

2024?

President George W. Bush leads a conversation on Social Security in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2005. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If the federal deficit and federal debt are problems, but no one talks about them, do they cease to be problems?

We can ask the same about social-welfare entitlements, too.

A headline yesterday read, “WH projects $1 trillion deficit for 2019.” (Article here.) The federal debt is now at $22.5 trillion. (Check the clock.) Romney and Ryan warned about these things during the 2012 campaign. See the thanks they got?

Here is a nugget from a report on Sunday: “Trump recently told West Wing aides that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told him no politician had ever lost office for spending more money.” He is a canny ol’ bird, McConnell.

Here is a headline from late last year: “Trump is reportedly not worried about a massive US debt crisis as he’ll be out of office by then.” (Article here.)

But it’s not just Trump — it’s everybody, pretty much. Everyone is willing to “kick the can down the road” and let future generations deal with the mess. Romney called this “immoral.” (Typical moral preening by a goody-goody and spoilsport.)

Running for the presidency in 2016, there were 17 Republicans. Fifteen of them said that entitlements were a big problem, calling out for reform. The other two were Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee. Trump said that reform was unnecessary — that what we had to do was ferret out “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the federal government. Dukakis and others used to talk this way, and we conservatives laughed at them.

Huckabee was a little different. He said that we had promised citizens that they would have their Social Security. They had paid into the system. And we could not break our promise and let them down.

He did not really disagree with George W. Bush, the great Social Security reformer, or would-be reformer. Bush said over and over that his reforms would not affect people counting on their Social Security. He said that anyone could opt to remain in the current system. But he wanted to give younger workers different options — because those workers, not without reason, were doubtful that Social Security would be there for them.

Bush had touched the “third rail of American politics.” He did it with abandon, you might even say reckless abandon. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Joe Andrew, said that his party would “fry” Bush on that rail. Bush said that he was “runnin’ for a reason” — he wanted to effect necessary changes, not simply mark time in office.

I am speaking of the 2000 campaign. Bush won that year — but he almost lost Florida, owing in large part to his stance on Social Security. (You may remember a post-election battle, too.)

In his first term, Bush did not do much about entitlements. He had other priorities, chiefly a war on terror. When he won reelection, he said he had the wind at his back and political capital to spend. He chose to spend it on Social Security reform. That’s how important he thought it was. He got nowhere with it, however.

Democrats, of course, called him a would-be murderer of grandmothers, and Republicans were very anxious. They held back. I have long thought that Americans will not rouse themselves to do anything until the crisis hits. No one wants to repair the roof while the sun is shining. Then, when the storm hits, they scramble up, in desperation.

Almost certainly, 2020 will be a write-off year, where these matters are concerned. The Left, represented by the Democratic presidential nominee, won’t talk about them. And the nationalist-populist Right, represented by President Trump, won’t talk about them. So, in all likelihood, it’ll be another four years.

How about 2024? Who will be brave? Who will be truth-telling? In my view, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney — and Paul Ryan — were. And they are now seen, by the Right at large, as untrue conservatives. This relates to our ongoing debate: What is conservatism?

I do know one thing, I think — that, as Margaret Thatcher said, the facts of life are conservative. And they will reassert themselves, good and hard, whether we want to face them or not.

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