The Corner

Re: Newt Tacks Left . . .

Andrew’s post on Newt’s problematic statements on Meet the Press — distancing himself from Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, tenderly embracing the individual mandate for health care — prompted a rare Corner shout-out for cogent political analysis from The Nation magazine, where John Nichols offers “Five Reasons Why Republicans Are Never Going to Nominate Newt Gingrich.” Reason #3 is: Gingrich is a Rockefeller Republican. That is indeed a kiss of death if accurate.

However, as much as I disagree with running away from the Ryan plan and saying nice things about an individual mandate, Newt may deserve a defense on his point that “radical” change is a bad idea (never mind that many times in the past Newt has himself called for “radical change” of this and that). My corollary of Newt’s point is not based on eschewing “radicalism,” but rather on the basis of the role of consent in American politics. I wrote about this problem at some length over on Powerline several weeks ago:

Since we don’t have a parliamentary system, what I am calling Hayward’s First Postulate of American Politics comes into play: major social policy changes can only be implemented if they have the consent — not the agreement, just the consent — of the minority party. As has often been pointed out, nearly every major social policy change of the last 100 years passed on with some measure of bipartisan support. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Fair Housing Act — all of these had substantial Republican support. In the case of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Republicans voted in favor in a larger proportion of their total numbers in the House and Senate than Democrats did. Reagan’s first tax cut bill passed the Senate 89–11, and the House with something like 40 Democratic votes, despite Democratic leadership attempts to whip their members into line against Reagan. I’m sure many of the Democrats who voted for Reagan’s tax cut didn’t agree with it fully or like it especially much, but they consented to it because they recognized the public consensus behind allowing Reagan a chance to govern. The 1986 Tax Reform Act passed on a truly bipartisan basis. Obama was oblivious to the meaning of the Tea Party and related signs that the American people simply did not wish to consent to his health care bill, that there was no consensus for his health care policy. This is why Bill Kristol is sure to be right: Obamacare is going to be dismantled if not repealed outright. (Some other day I’ll dilate why the relentless use of waivers for the law reveals the arbitrary character of the administrative state.) . . .

Hayward’s First Corollary to the First Postulate is that Democrats cannot fix health care without the consent of Republicans, and Republicans cannot fix Social Security or other entitlements without the consent of Democrats. Democrats have signaled already (vz. Harry Reid) that they simply will not discuss Social Security. We all know the Democrats have become a deeply irresponsible party, but I can see from their point of view that agreeing to any entitlement compromise will split their party apart, since they have so little to offer their voters aside from entitlements. But a similar hazard faces Republicans: any compromise on taxes or maybe even means-testing to pay for entitlements risks angering the Tea Party which presently form the nucleus of energy in the GOP.

As we now know from the surprisingly overlooked Steven Gillon book The Pact, Gingrich and Bill Clinton were supposedly close to brokering a bipartisan deal to reform Social Security and perhaps other entitlements back in 1997, a deal that would have required the usual unhappy compromises for both sides (higher taxes and private accounts being the chief axis of the deal). But then came the Monica disaster, which derailed the whole thing. Maybe it never would have come off. But maybe it would have, in which case the whole impeachment train wreck would turn out to have had a multi-trillion dollar cost. So Newt might have a correct instinct here, though it seems a big mistake to offer preemptive surrender on entitlements and the individual mandate, which will just make the Democrats dig in further. The man continues to puzzle even as he can still dazzle.

Steven F. Hayward — Stephen F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a two-volume political history, The Age of Reagan.

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