Wrong Lesson

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Jay Cost analyzes decades-long political trends and ends up offering the following advice to the Republican Party:

What the Republican party​ -- ​supported as it is today by so many former Democrats​ -- ​must do is what the Democrats used to claim to be able to do. The Republicans must find a way to sustain the entitlements that Americans have come to depend on​ -- ​most notably Social Security and Medicare​ -- without crippling the economy with increased levels of taxation. Liberal Democrats who demagogue about secret Republican schemes to destroy Social Security and Medicare have it exactly backwards. In truth, the Republican party​ -- ​and only the Republican party​ -- ​can save these entitlements without destroying the prospects for economic growth. The Democratic party can no longer be counted on to do this, which is why the GOP consists of so many old Democratic constituencies. This is the great mandate of the GOP: not to destroy the New Deal and Great Society, but to save their best elements from the ruinous ambitions of today’s liberal Democrats.
To the degree that many Americans don't fully grasp that the aforementioned entitlements can't be saved, or why any attempt to do so will ruin the economy, Cost is correct. It would be political suicide in the short term to start phasing these out carelessly or without making it clear why such changes are necessary. In fact, it is likely that all the American voter is ready for at this point is to stop digging our fiscal hole, but not to start filling it back up.

Fortunately, as history shows with slavery going from being the political "third rail" of its day to being abolished after a few decades of cultural activism, public opinion can overcome the inertia Costs's analysis relies on to change radically. In the end, Cost's piece illustrates the limits of mere political analysis. Elections are not educational campaigns, but snapshots of what the public is willing to support at a given moment.

Politics is limited by the facts of economic reality and by culture -- by the metaphysical (the things we can't change) and the man-made (the things we can change). One of these will cause our country to cease living beyond its means, one way or the other. Cost's advice may win a few elections for a GOP that imagines the only flaw in the Democratic Party to be incompetence or corruption, but there is no way to defy economic reality "competently."

The real hope for our country lies in overcoming inertia, not pandering to it.

-- CAV

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