The Agenda

Ross on the Right Analogy

Ross, riffing on a series of Daniel Larison posts, writes the following:

In one of his posts, Larison dismisses a Michael Barone analogy between 2010 and 1974, which envisions Obama Democrats heading for the same kind of electoral disaster that awaited Nixon Republicans after Watergate. But if the G.O.P. does win big this November, the 1974 analogy might prove more apt than Republicans would like. At the time, ‘74 seemed to represent the restoration of the old liberal order, after a brief Nixonian interregnum. But in hindsight it looks like a scandal-driven blip: The Democrats gained seats, but they didn’t gain wisdom, and they found themselves back in opposition soon enough. The same fate will likely await today’s Republicans, if they regain a share of power in 2010 having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Essentially, the combination of high unemployment and liberal overreach has afforded conservatives an unexpected chance to change the destiny that history seemed to have laid out for them — years if not decades in the wilderness, that is, followed by a slow and painful climb back to power in a fundamentally altered country. But if you want to change your destiny, you need to change yourself, with new ideas, better leadership, and a more realistic understanding of why you lost and what the times require of you. 

This is an important and neglected point. One thing I’ve found very frustrating about political discourse during the Obama administration so far is the following: the White House and its allies accuse the right of oversimplifying and distorting issues; conservatives respond by offering detailed critiques and alternatives; the alternatives are then oversimplified and distorted.

That said, not all conservatives are offering detailed critiques and alternatives. That is one reason why Paul Ryan has played such an invaluable role: despite his potential political vulnerability, he has proved pretty fearless when it comes to advancing serious policy alternatives, including alternatives that disturb the status quo. 

But as Casey Mulligan suggested today, we’re still in Tweedledum-Tweedledee mode:

Democrats and Republicans are like Coke and Pepsi: they spend a lot of effort marketing their purported distinctions, while the chemists (like me) say that they are producing almost exactly the same product.

Imagine if a Republican administration had proposed various cost control initiatives to trim the growth of Medicare spending. Does anyone doubt that Democrats would attack the notional cuts vociferously? Paul Krugman actually had a canned argument ready in case Republicans ever did follow through: while Democrats use cuts to fund coverage expansion, Republicans use them to cut taxes for the rich (cue evil laughter). Now, it’s obvious that we’re trapped in this dynamic because the median voter reigns supreme, and it is cheap and easy for incumbent interests to distort and oversimplify wrenching reforms on either side of the partisan divide. 

The only way out of this trap is to persuade the median voter of the central importance of achieving fiscal sustainability, even if that means short-term sacrifice. That is a tough job, and it’s not clear that conservatives are willing to take it on. The good news is that many in the Tea Party movement understand the stakes and the difficult decisions that have to be made going forward. I’m far more skeptical about the Republican leadership. Conservatives don’t need to take cheap shots. Simply pointing out the sleight of hand in the White House budget — including the mysterious contention that the “docfix” is part of current law — is a solid basis for constructive opposition that can be reinforced by serious calls for spending discipline and a stable policy framework.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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