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The seriousness primary

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Michael Gerson
February 18, 2011
— President Obama’s 2012 budget is the numerical embodiment of his State of the Union address—both being systematic distractions from the main, current tasks of governing. His plan includes, according to Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, “no entitlement reform, no tax reform, no significant spending reform, indeed no meaningful change of direction of any sort.”

All the elements of a status quo budget are present. A dependence on rosy economic assumptions to lower deficit projections. The deferral of two-thirds of deficit reductions until after 2016, when the ex-president is safely writing his third autobiography. The symbolic cuts in minor programs, attempting to obscure a national debt that will double on his watch (if he’s re-elected), then triple by the end of the decade.


Political courage, it’s said, is contagious. But Obama is cured. His political immune system is a wonder of nature. Immune to the urgings of his deficit commission. Immune to electoral repudiation. Immune to the warnings of economists and credit markets.


Given a choice between tackling the national debt and stimulating short-term economic growth, Obama chose neither. Instead, transcending the stale options offered by reality, he proposes federal investments in technology and infrastructure to better compete with China years from now. His approach has ideological implications that are obvious on the deficit-conscious right but also dawning on the left. The competitiveness agenda is primarily a corporate agenda. Its natural constituencies are the builders of high-speed trains, the makers of solar panels and the providers of rural cell phone coverage—not struggling Americans.


And though few progressives will admit it, the current path of entitlement-spending growth will eventually crowd out discretionary priorities of any sort. Our entitlement system represents a massive transfer of national wealth to the retiring baby-boom generation and to the health care industry, eventually leaving crumbs for the young and poor. As interest payments on the debt expand as a percentage of the budget, liberals (and a few remaining compassionate conservatives) will be left scrambling for shrinking resources to confront hunger, addiction, illiteracy or disease.


Up to this point, Republican approaches have not been much better—and, in a few cases, significantly worse. Some have pretended that discretionary-spending cuts alone will solve America’s fiscal ills and have sought credit for irrelevant, indiscriminate harshness. But now there are signs that the 2012 Republican budget, likely to arrive in April, will tackle the entitlement crisis.


Like Obama, Republicans are being weighed in the balance. The first political primary of the season—the intellectual seriousness race—is coming to an end. The winners include Rep. Paul Ryan, who is shaming his party into responsibility on entitlements. Another frontrunner is Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who has come closest to providing an intellectual and political strategy for successful entitlement reform.


His recent address at CPAC, delivered with characteristic Coolidge-like coolness, was the most important Republican speech of recent years—the only one worth reading aloud to little conservatives around the hearth fire.


Daniels defined entitlement growth as the main challenge to American success and provided the best, single-sentence description of Medicare reform in the English tongue: “Medicare 2.0 should restore to the next generation the dignity of making their own decisions, by delivering its dollars directly to the individual, based on financial and medical need, entrusting and empowering citizens to choose their own insurance and, inevitably, pay for more of their routine care like the discerning, autonomous customers we know them to be.”


But Daniels went on to talk about methods, not only goals. This kind of change will require “big majorities” that must include “people who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean.” Constructing that coalition depends on an irenic tone. The public, he argued, is “increasingly disgusted with a steady diet of defamation. … As we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit.”


In the opposite of CPAC pandering, Daniels urged conservatives to have a “special passion for those still on that first rung of life’s ladder. Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise.” And he warned Republicans to distinguish “skepticism about big government from contempt for all government.” The contrast he draws is not to Obama alone.


Conservative talk radio, predictably, criticized Daniels. But he is one of the few politicians in America who are thinking like a president—a select group that, on the economy, doesn’t include the president.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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