Over the past six years, I’ve encountered quite a bit of conservative despair over the notion that President Obama’s signature domestic initiatives — Obamacare and, now, his apparently mass-scale immigration action — are inevitably permanent. In other words — to use the common term — social legislation is always a one-way ratchet, and government benefits once bestowed are never revoked, just “reformed.” Government grows, so does dependence, and once-controversial programs become part of the fabric of American life.
Not so fast.
Left out of this analysis is a fundamental political and cultural reality missing from the present debate: Every other significant social reform of recent American life passed with a greater bipartisan consensus. Obamacare–to use Jonah’s memorable phrase – was “the most partisan major piece of social legislation in a century.” The most recent immigration action achieved even less cultural and political consensus. Members of President Obama’s own party begged him to push his announcement until after the midterm elections, fearful of an even more dreadful electoral toll. Say what you want about the wisdom or affordability of other social reforms — Medicare and Social Security come immediately to mind — they certainly enjoyed greater popularity at their inception and have maintained (or increased) their popularity as time has passed.
Compounding the point above, it’s becoming clear that both Obamacare and the immigration order provide benefits to relatively small minorities while potentially harming much larger numbers. There are small numbers of previously uninsured Obamacare beneficiaries relative to the size and scope of the law’s new taxes and regulations, and flooding the marketplace with millions of newly legal, often low-skill workers has the potential to further depress wages for those Americans who are most struggling to make progress in the information economy.
If conservatives give up hope at repealing and replacing politically unpopular, partisan government actions that benefit minorities at the expense of majorities, then that’s our own defeatism talking — not political reality.