The Corner

‘The New Promise of American Life’

During the recent health-care debate, a number of Democratic senators asked me, “What are Republicans for?” My answer was that Democrats would wait a long time if they were waiting for Republican Leader McConnell to roll into the Senate a wheelbarrow filled with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive health-care bill — or, for that matter, a Republican version of a 1,200-page climate-change bill, or an 800-page immigration bill. What has united almost all Republicans and a majority of Americans against these bills is not just that they were headed in the wrong direction, but that they were comprehensive, and, as George Will might write, “Congress. Does. Not. Do. Comprehensive. Well.”

This idea that Washington should advance huge initiatives to try to solve big policy problems all at once was launched by Herbert Croly’s progressive manifesto, The Promise of American Life, written in 1909. Today at the Hudson Institute, I will address a forum on what I call “The New Promise of American Life,” the reverse mirror image of Croly’s progressivism: the idea of an America where citizens expect less from Washington and more of ourselves. These ideas are not new. In fact, they revisit a volume that Checker Finn and I edited in 1995 entitled The New Promise of American Life. William Kristol, William Schambra and Checker — all contributors to the 1995 volume — will be at today’s forum, along with Christopher DeMuth, Kenneth Weinstein, and the National Review Institute’s own Kate O’Beirne. In my remarks I will propose that the Republican approach should be to set the right goals, such as making it easier and cheaper to create private-sector jobs, and then proceed step by step in that direction to re-earn the trust of the American people.

“But for more on all this, you can just read my full speech below, or you can watch it live starting at noon on the Hudson Institute website.



A wise political candidate, like a good composer, listens for words and music that resonate with audiences—and then repeats those phrases and melodies over and over again.

For the phrases that resonated during the 2010 election, we might listen to the senators who were successful.

In a year when television screens displayed anger, these politicians often talked about hope.

There were Rand Paul and Pat Toomey evangelizing about spreading free market prosperity instead of dwelling on government austerity.

Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte and Roy Blunt and Ron Johnson using their experience to describe ways to make it easier and cheaper to create new private sector jobs, rather than just wringing their hands about ten percent unemployment.

And Marco Rubio affirming with his life’s story America’s exceptionalism, instead of lamenting America’s decline.

To be sure, the issues that fired up voters this year were about too much spending, too many taxes, too much debt and too many Washington takeovers.

But the senators who voters elected to fix these problems are mostly American dreamers who believe that in this country anything still is possible for anyone who will work for it.

Europeans and others find this to be an irrational view held by citizens in no other country in the world. Yet most of American politics is about setting high goals and dealing with the disappointment of not meeting them and then trying again—all men are created equal, pay any price to defend freedom, no child left behind.

This is not an enforced Americanism where the government in Washington tells you what to believe. It is a spontaneous patriotism of the kind you get reading Lincoln’s second inaugural address, or the oath of allegiance that George Washington’s men swore to at Valley Forge, or David McCullough’s 1776, or attending citizenship day at any federal courthouse when new citizens from all over the world become Americans.


The vitality of that dream is why Herbert Croly’s book, “The Promise of American Life”, written in 1909, still is powerful today. The first chapter of Croly’s progressive manifesto could be read with enthusiasm at any Tea Party. But it is the rest of the book that we propose to discuss and dispute in this forum, for in his remaining chapters Croly argues that for individuals to realize the promise of American Life the central government in Washington must play a much larger role. His book launched the progressive movement, featuring first President Wilson and most recently President Obama. His is a strategy of made-in-Washington policies, grand schemes to solve big national problems based upon the assumption that these are things that individual Americans can’t do for ourselves.

In 1995, at the Hudson Institute’s request, Checker Finn and I edited a book, which we called “The New Promise of American Life.” Checker and I then both were fellows at Hudson and I was touring the country hoping to persuade Americans that I was the logical choice for President of the United States. (The public didn’t agree with my logic, prompting my preacher brother-in-law to suggest that I should think of that political loss as a “reverse calling.”)

Our book was an attempt to provide intellectual context for the anti-Washington fervor of the moment, a fervor that surges throughout American history. We chose the title “The New Promise of American Life” because we believed that progressivism had been carried too far and that what our country now needed was a reverse mirror image of Croly’s vision – “Less from Washington and more of ourselves.” Our idea of America was one created by states, operating community by community, depending upon civic virtue, valuing individual liberty – a nation simply too large and too diverse to be managed successfully by an all-knowing central government in Washington, D.C.

Speaking of phrases that resonate, my best political one liner at the time was “Cut Their Pay and Send Them Home” (referring to Congress), which made few friends in the world’s greatest deliberative body in which I now serve.

Reading what we published 15 years ago, I have been impressed with the prescience of the essays from contributors such as William Kristol, Paul Weyrich, Howard Baker, David Abshire, Francis Fukayama, William Schambra and Diane Ravitch. Their advice resonates as well today as it did then. Reading their advice also reminds me of how little of this advice anyone took. Republicans who were elected in 1994 on the cry of “No more unfunded federal mandates” soon were promulgating conservative big-government rules to replace liberal big-government rules. Since 1995, the size of the federal budget has grown 140 percent, the federal debt has grown from $5 to $14 trillion.

Within the last two years, the progressive solution symphony has been playing in Washington again, reaching a new crescendo with budgets that double the debt in five years and triple it in ten, with government bailouts, and, as one blogger has suggested, the appointment of more new Czars and Czarinas than the Romanovs ever had.

Seeing the inevitable anti-Washington surge rising again to counter the excesses of progressivism, I suggested to Checker about six weeks ago that we ask Hudson to revisit our 1995 book. This forum is the result of that suggestion. After this luncheon address we will hear from a panel that includes three contributors from the 1995 volume —Checker, Bill Kristol and William Schambra—as well as from Chris DeMuth and Kate O’Beirne. Our hope is the same today as it was fifteen years ago: to provide an intellectual context for the latest anti-Washington surge – with the additional hope that, this time, more elected officials listen to and act on our advice.


To begin the discussion, let me renew a suggestion that I have made before: the new Congress should proceed step-by-step in the right direction to solve problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people rather than invent comprehensive, conservative big-government schemes in an attempt to correct comprehensive, liberal big-government schemes.

To make this point, I thought of hanging up in the Republican cloakroom photographs of Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman because they symbolize what the federal government has done wrong during the last two years: not just to head in the wrong direction, but to try to go there all at once. This has been government by taking big bites of several big apples and trying to swallow them at the same time, which has had the effect of enraging Republicans and terrifying the independent voters of America.

During the recent health care debate, I heard a number of times from friends on the other side of the aisle this question: What are Republicans for? My answer was that Democrats would wait a long time if they were waiting for the Republican leader, Sen. McConnell, to roll into the Senate a wheelbarrow filled with a 2,700-page Republican comprehensive health care bill, or, for that matter, a Republican version of a 1,200-page climate change bill or an 800-page immigration bill.

Congressional action on comprehensive climate change, comprehensive immigration bills, and comprehensive health care have been well-intended but the first two fell of their own weight and the health care law has been subject to multiple efforts to repeal it since the day it passed the Senate a year ago on Christmas Eve in a driving snowstorm.


What has united almost all Republicans and a majority of Americans against these bills has not only been ideology but also that they were comprehensive. As George Will might write, “The. Congress. Does. Not. Do. Comprehensive. Well.”

Two recent articles help to explain the trouble with the Democratic comprehensive approach. The first, which appeared in National Affairs, was written by one of our panelists today, William Schambra, who explained the “sheer ambition” of President Obama’s legislative agenda as the approach of what Mr. Schambra called a “policy president.” Mr. Schambra wrote that the President and most of his advisers have been trained at elite universities to govern by launching “a host of enormous initiatives all at once—formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social systems—and indeed society itself—more rational and coherent forms and functions.”

Or, in the terms of today’s forum, this is the latest outburst of Crolyism or progressivism. Mr. Schambra notes that other most prominent organizational feature of this Obama administration is its reliance on Czars to manage broad areas of policy. In this view, systemic problems of health care, of energy, of education, and of the environment can’t be solved in pieces.

Analyzing Mr. Schambra’s article, David Broder of the Washington Post wrote this: “Historically, that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than a brief ascendancy and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.” The reason for these failures, as Broder paraphrased Schambra, is that “this highly rational comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players.” Broder then adds this: “Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit.”


In a memorial essay honoring Irving Kristol—Bill Kristol’s father—in the Wall Street Journal last year, James Q. Wilson wrote that the law of unintended consequences is what causes the failure of such comprehensive legislative schemes. Explains Wilson: “Launch a big project and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things that you did not intend to create.” The latest example of the truth of Mr. Wilson’s observation can be seen by anyone watching the new health care law increase premiums, add to the federal debt, cause millions of individual policy holders to lose their policies, cause businesses to postpone adding new jobs, and inflict huge unfunded Medicaid mandates on states—all consequences the sponsors of the law strenuously argued were never intended (although, I have to say, they were all predicted by Republicans).

Wilson also wrote that neoconservatism, as Irving Kristol originally conceived of it in the 1960s, was not an organized ideology or even necessarily conservative but “a way of thinking about politics rather than a set of principles and rules… It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics.”

This skepticism of Schambra, Wilson and Kristol toward grand legislative policy schemes helps to explain how during the 2010 election the law of unintended consequences made being a member of the so-called “party of no” a more electable choice than a member of the so-called party of “yes, we can.”


James Q. Wilson also wrote in his essay that respect of the law of unintended consequences “is not an argument for doing nothing, but it is one, in my view, for doing things experimentally. Try your idea out in one place and see what happens before you inflict it on the whole country,” he suggests.

That is why if the Republican Party aspires to be a governing party rather than merely an ideological debating society, the question “What are Republicans for?” still is a question that must be answered.

If you will examine the Congressional Record you will find Republican senators tried to answer the question by following Mr. Wilson’s advice, proposing a step-by-step approach to confronting our nation’s health care and other challenges 173 different times on the floor of the Senate during 2009.

On health care for example, we first suggested setting a clear goal: that is reducing Americans’ costs so that more of them could afford to buy insurance. Then we proposed the first six steps toward achieving that goal:

1.      allowing small businesses to pool their resources to purchase health plans;

2.      reducing junk lawsuits against doctors;

3.      allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines;

4.      expanding health savings accounts;

5.      promoting wellness and prevention; and

6.      taking steps to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.

We offered these six proposals in complete legislative text, totaling 182 pages for all six steps. The Democratic majority ridiculed the approach as “piecemeal,” in part because our approach was not comprehensive.

Take another example. In July of 2009, all 40 Republican senators announced agreement on four steps to produce low-cost, clean energy and create jobs:

create the environment for 100 new nuclear power plants;electrify half our cars and trucks;explore offshore for natural gas and oil; anddouble energy research and development for new forms of clean energy.

This step-by-step Republican clean energy plan was an alternative to the Kerry-Boxer national energy tax that would have imposed an economy wide cap-and-trade scheme, driving jobs overseas looking for cheap energy and collecting hundreds of billions of dollars each year for a slush fund with which Congress could play.

Here is still another example, a bipartisan one. In 2005 a bipartisan group of us in Congress asked the National Academies to identify the first 10 steps Congress should take to preserve America’s competitive advantage in the world so we could keep growing jobs. The Academies appointed a distinguished panel that recommended twenty such steps. Congress enacted two-thirds of them. The America COMPETES Act of 2007, as we call it, was important legislation, but it was fashioned step-by-step.

This style of governing squares with my experience as governor of Tennessee during the 1980s. My goal was to raise family incomes for what was then the third-poorest state. As I went along, I found that the best way to move toward this goal was step-by-step—some steps larger, step steps smaller—such as changing banking laws, defending the right-to-work, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting Japanese industry and then recruiting the auto industry, but also building four lane highways so that suppliers could deliver parts to the auto plants just-in-time, and then a 10-step Better Schools program – step one of which made Tennessee the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. I did not try to turn our whole state upside down at once, but working with leaders of both political parties, I did help it change and grow step by step. Within a few years, Tennessee was the fastest growing state in family incomes.


What do this approach and these examples have to suggest to Republicans as we look toward a new session of Congress? As a result of the 2010 elections, we have enough clout to stop risky, comprehensive schemes featuring more taxes, debt and Washington takeovers replete with hidden and unexpected surprises. And we have enough clout to suggest alternative approaches for the most urgent problems of the day. In fact we have an obligation to do so if we want to be able to persuade independent voters as well as Republicans that we ought to be the governing party in American after 2012.

It is no mystery what our country’s focus should be: jobs, debt and terror. Jobs and debt dominated the 2010 election.

Applying the step-by-step, rather than comprehensive, approach our first goal therefore should be to make it easier and cheaper to create private sector jobs. A quick list of steps comes to mind:

don’t raise taxes on anybody in the middle of an economic downturn;repeal one-by-one the mandates on job creators in the health care law;reduce the corporate tax rate;reduce or eliminate the tax on capital gains;defend the secret ballot in union elections;defend states’ ability to protect the right to work;create the environment for 100 new nuclear power plants;double research and development for clean energy;build a first class transportation system;repeal the so-called consumer protection agency in the financial regulation law; andenact Korea, Colombia, and Panama free trade laws.


I would add repeal the health care law entirely, although this might seem to be a comprehensive act violating the Wilson-Kristol-Schambra step-by-step doctrine. Such a comprehensive undoing carries the risk of scaring independents, but as a practical matter there is no good way to deal with that historic mistake other than by repealing and replacing it with a step-by-step approach reducing health care costs. In addition, most of its provisions do not take effect until 2014.

The same step-by-step approach can be applied to the second goal: making annual spending come as close to revenues as soon as possible. Trying to eliminate the annual deficit in the first year would turn the nation upside down. It is at points like this that the photographs of Pelosi and Waxman in the cloakroom become useful. But for a nation that is borrowing 42 cents of every dollar to wait one day longer to begin to address its debt is suicidal. There are steps that can and should be taken immediately, while larger steps are being fashioned:

For example, step one could be no new entitlement automatic spending programs. In other words, don’t dig the hole any deeper as would the President’s budget proposal to shift a half trillion dollars in Pell grants over ten years to mandatory spending. No more unfunded federal mandates on state and local governments. The Democratic governor of Tennessee, which has a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall this year, estimates that the new health care law will impose $1.1 billion in unfunded Medicaid mandates on our state between 2014 and 2019. Caps on discretionary spending. While this is only one-third of the budget, even non-defense discretionary spending increased by an average of 6.2% each year under President Bush and by an average of 15% over the last two years under President Obama. These dollars add up. Take the half trillion in Medicare savings that the new health care law spent on new entitlement programs and use it to make Medicare solvent. Adopt a two-year budget—this would allow Congress to spend every other year on oversight, repealing and revising laws and regulations that are out of date or wasteful. Give the rest of the government’s General Motors stock to every American who paid federal income taxes last April. I also support a 2-year earmark ban—Earmarks have become a symbol of wasteful Washington spending; there are too many of them and too many for less-than-worthy purposes. This process needs to be cleaned up, but this is more about good government than saving money since even unworthy projects are paid for by reducing spending in other places; and long-term it turns the checkbook over to the president at a time when most Americans voted for a check on the presidency.


Fifteen years ago Republicans captured control of Congress during one of those recurring outbursts when American voters announced that they wanted less of Washington, and more freedom for themselves. That advice was not well heeded, and now we find ourselves the political beneficiaries of another such outburst and an opportunity to lay the groundwork to be a governing party within two years.

My hope is that this time, Republicans heed the advice of Wilson, Schambra, and Kristol, that rather than attempt comprehensive conservative schemes, we keep our eye on the goals that matter most—making it easier and cheaper to create private sector jobs; reduce spending closer to revenues; and dealing in a tough, strategic way with terrorism. And that we proceed step-by-step toward those goals in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.

We should give Hebert Croly credit for reminding us in 1909 in the first chapter of his Promise of American Life that this is still the one country in the world where most people believe that anything is possible and that anyone can succeed if he or she works hard. This is a country where your grandfather can tell you, as mine did, “Aim for the top; there’s more room there,” and really believe it.

Hopefully, Republicans who were elected in 2010 will follow their instinct not just to oppose the excesses of Croly’s progressivism but to offer a new promise of American life. That they will continue to remind Americans that this debate is not some dry, dusty analysis but a contest of competing governing philosophies about how to realize the dream of an upstart, still new nation in which most people still believe that anything is possible. Our argument is that our country’s exceptionalism is best realized by the largest number of Americans when we expect less of Washington, and more of ourselves.


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