Maybe I am getting older and crankier, but that struck me as an exceptionally infantilizing speech that Mitt Romney just gave, politically speaking.
There were good bits in it, particularly in the soft-focus autobiographical stuff. He actually sounded like he choked up talking about missing the days when they’d wake up to find a pile of kids in their bedroom. He got a genuine laugh from a genuine joke. I’ve never cared much whether Romney seems “authentic” or “genuine” because those qualities in a politician are faked – what you’re seeing is the ability to seem genuine, seem authentic. If Romney lacks those qualities, they have practical consequences – people will be less-likely to believe him when he speaks in public – but they aren’t indications of character. But nonetheless, it’s nice to see that he can play this game a little, since he’d be expected to play it if he became President.
But the rest of the speech was pretty dreadful, and particularly this section:
Every small business wanted these to be their best years ever, when they could hire more, do more for those who had stuck with them through the hard times, open a new store or sponsor that Little League team. Every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future. This is when our nation was supposed to start paying down the national debt and rolling back those massive deficits. This was the hope and change America voted for.
I don’t have the transcript yet (the above is from the pre-released excerpts), but the next line is something like, “That’s what Americans deserve.”
Think about that: immediately after the biggest economic crisis since the great depression, Americans deserved to have “the best years ever.”
I guess that’s what makes America special, what makes us an exceptional nation. This is the only place where nothing bad is ever allowed to happen, where you are entitled to the “best year ever” because you want it.
That was one half of the infantilizing message. The other half: the “trust me” presentation of his “plan” to revitalize the American economy.
Romney’s “plan” to create 12 million new jobs had five parts:
- Energy independence (by 2020)
- School choice
- New trade agreements, and retaliation against nations that cheat on them
- Cut the deficit
- Cut regulations and taxes on small businesses, and repeal the ACA
Most of these things have absolutely nothing to do with job creation. Energy independence, if taken literally, would mean higher energy prices (if it was economically efficient for us to be independent, we would be). But what Romney really means is simply to roll back regulation against drilling and mining. More energy development will indeed create some jobs – it’s doing so in Western Pennsylvania, in North Dakota, for example. But it won’t make a big dent in a 12 million job goal.
School choice, whether you like it or hate it, has nothing to do with the near-term jobs picture.
New trade agreements? With what countries? Tariffs are at historic lows. “Trade agreements” these days are mostly about pushing other countries to respect our intellectual property regime. Retaliation is presumably about punishing China for being a currency manipulator. I’m still waiting to hear how exactly that particular chess game is supposed to play out after the first move.
Cutting the deficit is a meaningless goal if you don’t say how you’re going to cut it. Romney called out Obama for threatening the economy through his Medicare cuts and his (nonexistent) defense cuts. We don’t know what spending Romney plans to actually cut; he plans to increase spending on Medicare and defense. We know he has promised not to raise taxes, but to cut them. How the deficit is going to go down is a mystery. How, if it did, that would feed back into the job market is also a mystery.
And then we have cutting regulations and taxes on small businesses, and repealing the ACA (repeal is somehow supposed to lower healthcare costs). I’ll buy that actions to make our regulatory regime more efficient would have a positive economic impact. But a huge one? Big enough to pull us out of the biggest economic slump since the depression?
And that’s the “plan” to generate 12 million new jobs. The mismatch between the scale of the challenge and the proposed solution is almost laughable.
Mitt Romney is a very smart guy, and a successful businessman. He knows the mismatch is laughable. So why doesn’t he close the rhetorical gap? Don’t just tell us that President Obama doesn’t know how to end the economic crisis – explain to us how you think we wound up in this mess (in 2008, before Obama took office) and what President Obama should have done and could still do to get us out of it.
But, quite plainly, Mitt Romney has no intention of saying anything that his audience doesn’t want to hear, and what he thinks his audience wants to hear is that America is great, and the only reason everything isn’t hunky dory is that we are led by a man who doesn’t understand that America is great. So believe in Mitt Romney, who believes in America, and trust that he will do the right things to steer America toward brighter shores.
That’s the whole speech, and it’s the whole campaign. It’s really that infantilizing.
Personally, I like Mitt Romney. He was a decent governor. By all reports, he’s been a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. He reminds me of some of the people I worked with on Wall Street whom I liked best – the people who were stand-up guys who you’d feel confident doing business with, not the raging egotists that you too often find in that business. But even if he were running on policies I support, which he isn’t (and which is the main reason I’m opposed to him), I’d call this speech a lousy one. He’s condescending, flattering and generally treating the American people like children. And I don’t think the American people should take kindly to that.
A lot of the commentary on Paul Ryan’s speech has focused on the inaccuracy of much of what Ryan said. So let me get it on record: I don’t think the debt ceiling crisis, which caused S&P to downgrade America’s debt, was Obama’s fault (unless it’s his “fault” in the sense that he underestimated just how serious the GOP was about playing chicken with America’s creditworthiness). I don’t think the stimulus was “cronyism at its worst,” and it plainly wasn’t the biggest expenditure in government history by any rational measure. And so forth. If you want a rundown of false or misleading statements in the speech, go here.
But I still thought the speech was effective, because I don’t think the Obama campaign will get anywhere saying that Paul Ryan is lying, at least not if that’s all they say. Whose “fault” was the debt ceiling debacle? I dunno – James Madison’s, for not giving us a parliamentary system? Obama is the President. Everything that happens is his fault – including the insanity of the opposition party. Them’s the breaks in our crazy system.
The only really important falsehood in Paul Ryan’s speech was: “we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, or less.” The Romney Administration will not even attempt to do this over the next four years, and if they do they will fail. You can view that as a good thing or a bad thing, but the only positive action Paul Ryan promised – something they would actually do, not merely something Obama did that they promised to undo – is one that will not happen.
That empty box where policy is supposed to be is the Obama Administration’s proper response to Romney and Ryan. Not the only response, but the central one. If the Republicans have any real plans for how to combat the lingering economic crisis, they are not campaigning on them. The right-wing bunting is all there is. Whining that the recession, or the debt, or policy gridlock isn’t really Obama’s fault, and that the Republicans are really to blame for this or that – even if true (and I think it’s more true than not) – is a losing message, because it implicitly concedes Ryan’s main argument that Obama isn’t really in control of events, isn’t really a leader, is a failure. And the American people won’t reelect a failure.
It’s a chutzpadich argument, sure. If you believe that the economy would be significantly better were it not for Republican opposition, then basically the Ryan argument boils down to: Obama is a failure because he couldn’t stop me from torpedoing his agenda, so vote for me and you won’t have to worry about that problem anymore.
But you can’t can’t win an argument by saying, “how dare you say that!” And you can’t get elected by claiming your opponent is being unfair.
Which the Obama campaign understands perfectly well, which is why they have not been ashamed to go relentlessly negative on Romney, and why they are always pleased when the Romney campaign complains about unfair attacks. Because when that’s your only response, you lose the argument. And when that happens often enough, you lose the election.
As Daniel McCarthy has pointed out, Rand Paul’s “Time To Make The Donuts” speech was basically libertarian-inflected Republican boilerplate. Obamacare is unconstitutional; businesses build roads, not the other way around; all taxation ultimately falls upon the worker; the enthusiasm of immigrants proves we are an exceptional, unique nation in world history; etc. So much so familiar. There was the brief mention of trimming waste in defense, and the more substantial, and welcome, call not to give up rights for an ephemeral security.
And then there was this:
Author Paul Kengor writes of a brisk evening in small-town Illinois. Returning home from a basketball game at the YMCA, an 11 year old boy is stunned by the sight of his father sprawled out in the snow on the front porch. “He was drunk,” his son later remembered. “Dead to the world…crucified.” The dad’s hair was soaked with melted snow, matted unevenly against the side of his reddened face.
The boy stood over his father for a minute or two. He simply wanted to let himself in the door and pretend his dad wasn’t there. Instead, he grabbed a fistful of overcoat and heaved his dad to the bedroom, away from the weather’s harm and neighbors’ attention.
This young boy became the man – Ronald Reagan – whose sunny optimism and charisma shined so brightly that it cured the malaise of the late seventies, a confidence that beamed so broadly that it pulled us through a serious recession, and a faith that tugged so happily at all hearts that a generation of Democrats became Republicans.
The American Dream is that any among us could become the next Thomas Edison, the next Henry Ford, the next Ronald Reagan.
To lead us forward, away from the looming debt crisis, it will take someone who believes in America’s greatness, who believes in and can articulate the American dream, someone who has created jobs, someone who understands and appreciates what makes America great, someone who will lead our party and our nation forward.
I believe that someone is our nominee: Governor Mitt Romney.
A two-paragraph anecdote about Reagan’s youth is introduced without any transition from the earlier portion of the speech. Then we get the obligatory Reagan apotheosis – he healed the economy by the sheer numinousness of his sunny optimism, and not by getting specific laws passed or implementing them in specific ways.
And then: the American Dream is that anybody could grow up to be Reagan, and to preserve that Dream we need to elect somebody who believes in the Dream, namely Mitt Romney – the only time the nominee is mentioned in the speech.
What on earth was that about?
It’s possible that the last third of this speech was mangled by last-minute cuts imposed on account of Hurricane Isaac, but what we’re left with is a bizarre attempt to graft a Reagan anecdote – an anecdote completely unrelated to any political or philosophical point – onto Mitt Romney, as if the audience might, in its confusion, begin to associate that anecdote with Romney, and thereby both associate him with Reagan and with the kind of anecdote nobody tells about Romney.
Or, even stranger, perhaps what we’ve got here is a bit of politico-theological prophecy. Reagan, the original Republican messiah, healed us with his touch, but then he left. And before he left, he warned us: the American Dream was always only one generation from extinction. So in every generation, a leader must arise who can keep belief in that Dream alive. Whatever else Mitt Romney believes, at least we know he believes in America. He will keep the Dream alive, until that promised time in the future when the American Dream will give birth to a new Reagan. Conceived in liberty. A new birth of freedom, if you will.
Either way, it’s a pretty strange moment in an otherwise boringly conventional speech.
As for Paul Ryan’s speech, Scott Galupo’s piece covers it well. I thought the speech was very effective on its own terms – well organized, well delivered, forceful and clear. It presented a case against the Obama record that is difficult to rebut – not because there are no persuasive rebuttals (the S&P downgrade caused by the GOP’s debt ceiling shenanigans is somehow Obama’s fault?) but because the speech had built into it the inevitable comeback (there you go, refusing to take responsibility – where does that proverbial buck stop again?). On the strength of this speech, Ryan is not going away any time soon, whatever happens in November.
And in terms of the fundamental notes it hit, the speech was reminiscent of another up-and-comer, Reagan’s famous “Time for Choosing” speech from 1964, though Reagan’s speech was much wonkier (how times have changed!). But this was a “time for choosing” speech without any actual choices. Because, in terms of positive action to address what Ryan correctly identifies as the core issue in the election – the lingering economic crisis – here’s all the speech has to say.
We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years.
In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, or less. That is enough. The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.
That’s it. That’s the entire policy section – everything else in the speech is either boilerplate or refers to reversing what Obama has done, putting us back where we were in January, 2009.
Assuming the second paragraph is an explanation of the first, then the plan for achieving rapid recovery is a Federal spending cap. Now, under Romney’s proposed budget, defense spending is supposed to increase and Medicare cuts are supposed to be restored. You can’t cut interest payments, and Ryan and Romney have been busily demagoguing against any cuts in current retiree benefits, which rules out near-term cuts in Social Security. All of the foregoing put together amount to about 2/3 of the Federal budget, or 16% of GDP. To get under the 20% cap, you’d have to cut 50% of everything else, from Medicaid to highways to veterans’ benefits to the F.B.I. Which, of course, is never going to happen. Which is probably a good thing, because it would be devastating to the economy. So what’s the secret recovery plan? Why are we supposed to vote for this ticket?
The largest expansion of entitlements in our time, Medicare Part D, took place in the Bush years, and Paul Ryan voted for it. The most serious effort to restrain Federal spending in our time, the Simpson-Bowles commission, took place in the Obama years, and Paul Ryan voted against it. I’m sure, in his heart, Ryan opposed Medicare Part D, and voted for it to “preserve his viability within the system,” as it were. I’m sure, in his heart, Ryan opposes his own ticket’s rhetoric on Medicare – heck, his own budget retained Obama’s Medicare cuts, and he claims that he opposed Simpson-Bowles precisely because it didn’t tackle the growth of spending in Medicare.
I also suspect that, in his heart, Paul Ryan is amenable to the kind of bi-partisan compromise that could make a real difference in changing our fiscal situation. He’s worked in the past with Democrats like former OMB chair Alice Rivlin and Senator Ron Wyden on his proposals for Medicare reform, and has amended those proposals repeatedly in an effort to respond to Democratic objections.
But his heart doesn’t matter. Political reality does. The political reality of our time is that there is no majority constituency for radically reducing the scope of the welfare state. There was no such majority in 1964 either – which is why the Goldwater ticket went down in flames. There was no such majority in 1980 either – which is why every major part of the Great Society that Reagan opposed in 1964 was retained by his administration. Today, I don’t even think there’s a majority constituency of Republicans. But the Republican Party as currently constituted cannot accept that fact – indeed, is founded on denying it. Which is why Romney and Ryan are running on the rhetoric of reducing it, but not the reality.
This is, indeed, a time for choosing. We don’t have infinite financial resources, and the priority now should be to use them more effectively, because if we don’t we’ll have to shoulder progressively rising interest payments on the back of an economy that hasn’t grown to match. Choosing, though, means deciding what is important than what. To my mind, that means choosing to reduce the burden of American military spending (currently 20% of the budget), choosing to wring inefficient spending more effectively out of our healthcare system, choosing to reduce the generosity of the Federal government toward the least-deserving beneficiaries (wealthy retirees, jumbo mortgage borrowers, large agribusinesses, etc.) – and choosing to spend more in areas that have a better chance of improving the performance of our economy over time.
Those are real choices, choices that would be hard to push through our political system. They are small-scale choices compared with the choice of radically downsizing most of the Federal Government’s actual activities, which Romney and Ryan claim to be running on. But they are huge choices compared with any specific spending changes that Romney or Ryan have proposed.
I’ve paid relatively little attention to the convention so far, and haven’t listened to anything in real time, so forgive me for coming to this so late, but I wanted to say a few words about Ann Romney’s speech from Tuesday.
Virginia Heffernan got at the heart of the speech: it wasn’t really about humanizing her husband – there was strikingly little specificity to her portrait of him – but rather a soft culture-war assertion of traditional gender roles in marriage, and in life.
Since the Clinton era, politicians have talked feelingly about parents—mothers and fathers—as though the work and worry of parenthood were equally shared. But without invoking culture wars, [Ann] Romney appealed to women’s intuition (of all things!) to suggest there was nothing equal about family life in her home. She began by talking about “that love so deep only a mother can fathom it”—maternal love—and then brought up a “great collective sigh” of frustration and exhaustion she said she could almost hear at day’s end.
“If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men,” she said. “It’s how it is, isn’t it? It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right.”
It’s how it is, isn’t it? Girls were girls and men were men. This was a grand and retro move: to paint women as the loving, sighing slaves of the world. And it paid off. This mom, anyhow, found it profoundly endearing and altogether natural. It’s the way a formidable, bombshell grandmother might talk sotto voce to a younger woman, hinting that we alone do all the work and know what’s up. It hit the spot. It gave courage. For a moment, it also separated women voters from the men in their lives, and conferred on us status and perspective and even sanctity that, at the end of that day, was a deep and guilty pleasure.
If the speech turns out to have been effective, this will be why.
But she did talk a bit about her husband somewhere in there, and it turns out he’s kind and patient and strong, treated her parents well and still makes her laugh. And she can tell us why he’s the right man to be President:
It’s true that Mitt has been successful at each new challenge he has taken on. It amazes me to see his history of success actually being attacked. Are those really the values that made our country great? As a mom of five boys, do we want to raise our children to be afraid of success?
Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, “Try to do… okay?”
And let’s be honest. If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney’s success?
Of course not.
And then the signature promise of the speech. Elect Mitt Romney Prsident and ”this man will not fail.”
This struck me as one of the most authentic statements about Mitt Romney that I’ve heard, authentic because it bears almost no relationship to reality, and therefore says a great deal about where he – and his party – are coming from psychologically.
“Successful at each new challenge he has taken on” – and yet, he failed in 2008 to win the Republican nomination, failed in 1994 to defeat Senator Ted Kennedy, and didn’t seek reelection in Massachusetts in 2006 largely because he knew he would fail. As a politician, he has a less successful record than anyone in recent memory who actually won his party’s nomination.
“This man will not fail” – and yet, this touted turnaround artist left numerous companies bankrupt in the course of his business career. Which is fine - you can’t save every company, not even every company you thought you could save. Part of the job of a private investor is to make those tough calls, and there’s nothing dishonorable in that. A critique of private equity can be made – of the ways it which it leverages the tax code, for example – without it turning into a critique of capitalism. But presumably Romney did think he could save every company he invested in, right? He didn’t buy companies intending to strip them of their assets and then kill them. Right? Or are we really supposed to believe that every Bain investment that failed was the fault of people who were in charge during one of Romney’s periodic leaves of absence?
I don’t mean to suggest that the problem with Romney is that he isn’t really such a great success. Indeed, an alternative narrative like “when this man fails, he picks himself up and tries again until he succeeds – he doesn’t let failure get him down” is a great story – a much better story than “this man will not fail.” But that’s not the story Mitt Romney has been telling. The story he’s been telling is, “I’m a winner. I’m a success. I’ve always been a success. And I earned my success. So you should elect me.”
It’s almost as if Romney is presenting himself as a totem: I am success; make me first among your gods, and success will fall like manna. It’s also, in a way, the counterpart to Ann Romney’s portrait of their marriage. Theirs is a “real” marriage – because they are mortal. Their kids yell and the rain wets them and they are subject to disease; in these ways, the really rich are just like you and me. And yet it’s a marriage in which husband and wife never argue (so Ann Romney has averred), and each plays his or her traditional part and feels that this arrangement is just right. So Mitt Romney’s career, too, was real, and yet was one in which he went from success to success, turning everything to gold with his (hardworking) touch – as if always succeeding was just natural. (And of course, the identification of wealth as the measure of success is simply assumed.)
It’s a bizarre way to present yourself, when you think about it, and bizarre to think that it would be generally appealing. It’s much easier for me to understand why people would love George W. Bush’s prodigal son schtick, or Bill Clinton’s poor country boy conquers the big city act, or certainly Ronald Reagan’s autodidact against the experts routine (a routine farcically parodied by Sarah Palin and authentically reprised by Ron Paul). Even Mr. Incredible doesn’t become a sympathetic character until he’s learned that some things matter more than being recognized as Mr. Incredible.
On the one hand, I suspect that message is one Mitt Romney, for his own reasons, feels he must deliver, because this is the way he’s always talked (at least, as long as I’ve been listening). But on the other hand, I suspect this message connects with the contemporary Republican party psychologically, in a way that it really doesn’t connect with me. I once defined the difference between right- and left- wingers as the difference between people who care mostly about rewarding success and people who care mostly about mitigating failure. Both attitudes are obviously important for a society to have, but by this definition the current Republican Party is exceedingly right wing. And it appears they’ve got the nominee they deserve.
The Republican convention has now been called to order, launching three days of introducing America to the real Mitt Romney. And all snarking aside, I’m one of those people who thinks character does matter quite a bit in choosing a President. But I think it matters in somewhat different ways than is usually described.
Ideologues generally think about character in terms of fortitude – will the candidate really pursue the agenda he’s “supposed” to be pursuing. But candidates don’t, generally, have a secret agenda, and to the extent that the agenda they wind up enacting is different from what they ran on, this is generally either because their own coalition was never on board, or because popular opposition is so intense. Thus: President Bush got his tax cut (big priority for his coalition) and his education bill (scrambled political categories and promised a big pot of money) but not his immigration bill (fractured his own coalition) or his Social Security privatization (massively unpopular). And: President Obama got his health-care bill (big priority for his coalition) and his stimulus bill (big pot of money and popular at the time) but not his cap-and-trade climate bill (fractured his own coalition).
Where I think Presidential character plays a greater role is in how the President responds to unexpected contingencies. President Bush, for example, responded to the September 11th attacks by preparing for war in Iraq. That choice reflected the longstanding priorities of at least one faction of his party, but his enthusiasm for the project was a product of personality factors as well. Basically, he seized the opportunity to pursue an aggressive, revisionist foreign policy, where another President might have responded more cautiously, and yet another might have seen the attacks as a sign that new thinking (rather than new action) was needed.
President Obama, meanwhile, responded to the financial crisis in what in retrospect looks like a rather jejune manner. He became convinced, early on, that monetary policy had “shot its wad,” and that his first stimulus was all he was going to get, and he was comfortable letting Congress take the lead on financial sector reform. In other words, he mostly used the financial crisis to promote the economic ideas that his party had been championing. The question, “what do we do if the economic crisis proves worse than we initially thought?” doesn’t seem to have occupied him greatly. Another President might have seized the opportunity to march forcefully leftward – or might have seen the crisis as, again, a call for radically new thinking rather than pursuing a longstanding policy agenda.
Neither of these responses should, in retrospect, surprise us, given what we knew before the election about each President’s character. Candidate Bush made it clear that he had something to prove – that he wanted to be “great,” to leave his mark on history. He also made it clear that he didn’t know very much and prized decisiveness over judiciousness. His career, from his college days through his business career to his governorship, consisted primarily of his being a cheerleader. Given all this, neither the Iraq War nor the financial crisis should be entirely surprising. Candidate Obama made it clear that he was a consensus-oriented politician who, for all the outsized enthusiasm he generated among both Democrats and some independents, lacked any real animating cause beyond his own election. Obama’s preference for letting the legislature lead on legislation, and for acting unilaterally (and preferably covertly) in foreign policy all make perfect sense when you consider his aloof, writerly temperament and his lack of legislative experience. The biggest surprise, to me, about Obama’s tenure so far has been the Libyan war, but from what I understand about how we wound up in Libya the big advocates for action were France and the UK, so this may be another instance of Obama not wanting to buck the consensus. (Arguably another surprise is how tough Obama has been on Pakistan, given how many Pakistanis he hung out with in his early years.)
So what do we know about Mitt Romney? We know the agenda a President Romney will pursue, because that agenda will be dictated by what he ran on and what his party prioritizes. If you don’t like that agenda that’s reason enough to oppose him, but how much he’ll actually get passed will be, in large part, a function of what kind of opposition he runs into in Congress. Personally, I expect him to succeed in passing a big tax cut, and to fail in voucherizing Medicare. Beyond that, what strikes me most about Romney’s background is that he is not a guy who has had to see very much through. As a businessman, he didn’t run companies – he bet that he could get money out of them (more money if they did well, of course, but LBO deals are designed so that the buyout firm retain a variety of ways to extract value even if the company goes bust). As a politician, he was a one-term governor who effectively bailed out halfway through that one term in order to prepare for a Presidential run. That could mean that he’d be cautious about taking on commitments – which would probably be a good thing. But it could also mean that he’d make lots of promises and then not keep them. Daniel Larison has long made the case that President Bush’s sloganeering encouraged recklessness on the part of the government of Georgia, leading that government into a war it could not win on the mistaken impression that America had its back. It’s not too hard to see something similar happening in between Israel and Iran in a Romney Administration.
More generally, Mitt Romney has few demonstrable political (as opposed to managerial) skills, and commands no particular loyalty. His two campaigns for the Presidential nomination have been characterized by widespread mistrust and an eagerness, on the candidate’s part, to placate critics. From my perspective, all signs point to him being a weak President. And regardless of what one thinks about his agenda, and whether or not one wishes to see a structurally weaker presidency, a weak President is, in and of itself, not an asset to the Republic, particularly not when unexpected contingencies present themselves.
President Bush was a leader who didn’t tend to ask directions before marching off in one direction or another. President Obama has a predilection for “leading from behind.” A President Romney, I suspect, would turn out to be a leader that nobody wants to follow.
As I do every year, I encourage all lovers of theatre to make the trip to the home of the Ontario Pork Congress. This year is no exception. If you’re thinking about making the trek, and need a guide you can trust, pop on over to Millman’s Shakesblog where a complete list of my write-ups of this year’s season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada can be found.
Daniel Larison complains about my last post on the grounds that defending the status quo isn’t conservative. I think he misses my point. I wasn’t arguing that Barack Obama is a traditionalist conservative, nor that he’s an ideological movement conservative. I argued that Barack Obama was already pursuing what Tom Friedman thinks a conservative opposition should be advocating, and that it is therefore bizarre that Friedman is pining for such an opposition rather than simply supporting the President.
The semantic debate about defining a “real” conservative is exceptionally tedious, but I will put in a word for resisting the contemporary inclination to identify it either with a set of policy prescriptions or with a demographic cohort. As Larison himself recognizes, there are essentially no self-identified conservatives in America today who advocate “curtailing the power of the Executive branch,” and precious few who favor “reducing overseas commitments.” I would argue that those who “practice fiscal responsibility in budgeting” are few and far between as well, and I think Larison would agree with me.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that “conservative” can’t mean these things, only that – in the parlance of our time – it mostly doesn’t. This magazine, as I understand it, is devoted to a project of redefining what Americans think it means to be a conservative, specifically arguing that it is more properly conservative to exercise restraint in foreign affairs (potentially even to oppose interventionism on principle) than to try to preserve hegemony, and that it is more properly conservative to nurture local economies and cultures (potentially even ones an individual might find baffling or distasteful) than to try to flatten them in the name of capitalist or administrative efficiency. The fact that one needs to make an argument to the effect that these things are conservative, when most self-identified conservatives plainly don’t think they are, implies acknowledgement that whatever “conservative” means, it means something else – otherwise it would be impossible to convince a self-identified conservative who identifies his or her “conservatism” with nationalism and unfettered capitalism that he or she is wrong in making that identification, and the mission of this magazine would be fruitless.
Whatever that “something else” might be, I would argue it has something to do with endurance, with making it possible for things to continue to be. That goal, it seems to me, is quintessentially conservative. Of course, making it possible for things to continue to be sometimes requires change, and sometimes requires resistance to change. It sometimes requires the exercise of power and sometimes requires its restraint. Daniel Larison favors reduced central government power and favors reducing the power of large banks. As early as the 19th century, Progressives were arguing that these goals were in tension if not in outright contradiction. For this reason, simple deference to the status quo is not, I agree, a good definition of conservatism. But it is a useful default position. “Keep things as they are, unless they are unsustainable, in which case change them in such a way as to cause the least disruption” sounds to me very much like a conservative default position on governance, all else being equal.
Again, I have no interest in arguing that Barack Obama is what Daniel Larison thinks a conservative should be. Plainly he isn’t remotely that. Nor, plainly, is he what a conventional movement conservative thinks a conservative should be. All I was arguing is that he is, in fact, what the blathering centrist commentariat thinks a responsible conservative should be. It would be nice if they acknowledged that as plainly as Larison does.
Look, I know critiquing a Friedman column is like shooting fish in a barrel, but this is what Friedman thinks a conservative party would look like. It would:
- Favor deficit reduction achieved by a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts.
- Favor immigration reform that provided a path to citizenship for those here illegally and that opened the “front door” wider for skilled immigrants to come legally.
- Favor tackling climate change by putting a price on carbon to account for negative externalities, and then let the market work its magic to reduce emissions.
- Favor improving education by toughening teacher evaluation, doing an end-run around union rules through school choice and charters, and promoting common core standards for instruction.
Every single item on that list is Obama Administration policy, from Cap-and-Trade to Race-to-the-Top.
Beyond Friedman’s deadly familiar wish-list, the Obama Administration has been a quintessentially small-”c” conservative one, in that it has tried its best to preserve the status quo in just about every area. Its health care plan aimed to achieve universality with minimal disruption to existing insurance arrangements (which is why it was a good deal for insurance companies). Its response to the financial crisis was centered on securing the financial position of the large banks. Its response to the recession centered on the combination of tax cuts and aid to the states to prevent precipitate layoffs, and it quickly pivoted from talking about stimulus to talking about reducing the long-term deficit. Its approach to foreign policy has been to try to preserve American hegemony at minimal cost.
Moreover, the Obama Administration has not tried to rein in the Executive branch’s authority (far from it), nor has it rolled back the Bush Administration’s compromises of civil liberties. It has not pushed the Fed to adopt an inflationary monetary policy – indeed, President Obama reappointed Bush’s Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke. It has not aggressively used the FHA or any other levers available to it to address household mortgage debt directly. In the core areas of policy, the goal of the Obama Administration has been the preservation of the status quo, and where the Obama Administration has sought to move longstanding Democratic priorities, it has generally done so with an eye to minimally disturbing existing economic and political arrangements.
Obviously, we can all come up with exceptions to the above, and what I perceive as a relatively modest change may be perceived by others as monumental (that’s certainly what I observed with respect to the ACA’s mandate/tax). But it would be helpful if commentators like Friedman would acknowledge not only that the Republican Party has become a right-wing populist party rather than a conservative one, but that the Obama Administration is the sensible, centrist conservative Administration they claim to want – and either declare their support (rather than wishing for a better opposition) or, if they don’t like the results, reconsider their centrist policy preferences.
I’m a little late to this particular party (I’m still in Canada, for my last theatrical jaunt northward of the summer), but I just wanted to chime in to say: neither the Obama nor the Romney campaign’s Medicare attacks entirely make sense. If you just look at the question of bending the cost curve, the competing plans have more in common than not. Moreover, the Romney-Ryan approach (if we assume it will be based on the most recent Ryan plan) specifically depends on something like ACA the function at all.
The two main mechanisms in the ACA that are designed to bend the cost curve are: the tax on “cadillac” insurance plans, and the reductions in future reimbursement rates to health-care providers under Medicare. The former raises revenue, but also creates an incentive to structure private insurance so that it doesn’t run afoul of the tax, and therefore creates an incentive not to cover some “unnecessary” treatments, or find less-expensive alternatives to treatments that are necessary. The latter forces providers to find ways to continue to function with less revenue per patient, whether that means slimming down administrative expenses or reducing salaries of providers or changing the treatment mix or whatever. Will those changes mean “worse” coverage? On some level, the answer has to be: “of course.” You can’t reduce spending and simply assume that there will be no negative impact on treatment – the goal isn’t to maximize treatment options, it’s to reduce cost while minimizing any negative impact on treatment. Obviously, the hope is that a lot of necessary restructuring can be done with very little impact on patient care – maybe as little as none. In that case, the net gain to public health would be enormous, as those freed-up resources are redeployed to areas of much greater need (e.g., the uninsured). Which is the idea.
Turning to the Republican alternative, assuming we can use Representative Ryan’s latest plan as a basis for what a Romney Administration would support, what that plan does, basically, is provide future Medicare recipients with an option to shift to a “premium support” model, where they would get a voucher for use to purchase private health insurance. Of course, the problem with purchasing private health insurance is that if you let insurers underwrite individual policies, they will select against the people who need coverage most. You can deal with that by mandating that insurers not do an individual underwriting, but then they will assume that they are getting a negatively-biased sample, and underwrite based on a very negative patient profile. This, in turn, drives costs way, way up. The ACA’s solution to this problem is to mandate that everyone participate in the insurance pool. You don’t have to do exactly this, but you have to do something similar if you want to provide health insurance widely through individual relationships with insurance companies, and that’s what Ryan’s plan intends. So in a very fundamental sense, it depends on the existence of something like the ACA’s mandate to function properly.
And when we look at cost containment, we see that Ryan’s plan approaches the question in a very similar way to the ACA. It imposes a budget on traditional Medicare (which is retained as an option for seniors), which would force HHS to find ways to reduce costs if they did not drop naturally on their own. The most plausible mechanisms for such are the kinds of things already included in the ACA. The value of a voucher would also be held down, so the other possibility is that private insurers would find ways to reduce costs that the government would not find. I’m inclined to favor competition for precisely that reason, but the fact remains that the kinds of things private insurers would have to do are essentially the same kinds of things the government would be doing: reducing reimbursements and/or changing the coverage mix.
Introducing private insurers would gain you the benefit of multiple perspectives on the problem, and the incentives of the profit motive in a competitive marketplace. On the other hand, you’d have introduced a new layer of cost (the insurers’ need for profit) and each insurer would have less leverage to negotiate fees than the government does. That’s a meaningful debate to have, but it’s basically a peripheral one because under both the ACA and Ryan’s proposal, the way you hold down Medicare’s costs is by setting a budget and refusing to spend more. And in both cases the way you make that promise good is by changing the coverage mix or forcing providers to accept less in reimbursements, thereby pushing the problem of cost-containment downstream.
I don’t view this as a problem with either plan. Putting Medicare on a budget is, indeed, the only way to control costs. It’s also what every other developed country in the world does. In a rational world, both parties would agree on this, and we’d move on to the other parts of the debate. In our world, both campaigns are accusing each other of gutting Medicare.
That’s not to say that there are no important differences between their approaches. The Republicans do propose gutting a government health-insurance plan – they plan on gutting Medicaid, which benefits the poor and near-poor. This is also the form of insurance that the ACA expanded substantially. But I don’t expect this to be the main focus of the Obama Administration’s attacks, because the politics of our time are the politics of scarcity.