“[T]hey have a viewpoint,” he says.
Let me describe it this way: In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state. Between Ike and George W. Bush, Republican leaders basically accepted that model. Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but, in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats.
But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety.”
This is exactly the kind of thing I was getting at with my one-and-a-half cheer for Gov. Scott Walker.
Here’s what’s happening: After the crash in 2008, the conservative Republican mainstream found itself in a quandary. The crisis was so acute, so cymbal-crashingly, existentially serious, that it required some sort of ideological accounting. It happened on our watch. What, if anything, did we do wrong? Human nature being what it is, the movement sought to deflect as much blame as possible. The Fed was fingered (rightly) for keeping interest rates too low, for too long. Less persuasively, it was pointed out that Democrats had been in charge of Congress since January 2007. Less persuasive still were the desperate attempts to pin the crash on Andrew Cuomo’s HUD and the Community Reinvestment Act: The subprime mortgage crisis, in this telling, was the result of fool-headed generosity toward minorities. There’s a kernel of truth to this, but it doesn’t explain, first, why private-sector lenders were so keen on subprime mortgages (they offered easy profits and could be kicked upstairs via securitization) and, second, how an American housing crisis became a worldwide financial contagion.
After they wiped their hands of the crisis until they could wipe no more, movement conservatives did fess up to one thing: expanding entitlements and generally spending too much.
This was nice. I can see why it was attractive narrative to people like Yuval Levin, who had a role in shaping Bush administration domestic policy.
But it fell far short of what the 12-step community calls a “searching, fearless moral inventory.”
The truth is, Medicare Part D had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis. The lukewarm implementation of policies that fell under the rubric of “compassionate conservatism” had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis. Tariffs on steel had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis. The No Child Left Behind education reform law had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis.
What were the root causes, then? Look them up: “dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions”; “excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency”; “systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics”; “collapsing mortgage-lending standards”; “over-the-counter derivatives”; “the failures of credit-rating agencies.”
Of course, the big-government conservative legacy looks worse after the crisis, as revenues plummeted and annual deficits spiked. But to fasten onto these policies is to confuse effect for cause. So it is with the apparatus of the welfare state: it looks to be in even worse shape than it was before the crash. But it did not cause the crisis.
Does it need to be reformed? Of course it does. Only the most ideologically hardened liberal would deny it.
Yuval Levin strikes me as a smart and serious-minded guy. Yet I can’t blame Democrats for not trusting his motives. The conservative movement has railed against the welfare state for as long as it has existed. He and his cohort give every appearance of ideologues who are doing what they’ve wanted to do all along; they’re following the dreaded Rahm Emanuel’s advice, and not letting a crisis go to waste.