Tom Friedman has a column in today’s New York Times that really hits home. Entitled “We Need a Second Party,” he bewails the absence of any evidence that the politicians competing for the Republican nomination for president have a clue about the most serious problems facing us today.
Instead of discussing the real issues, they compete in courting the support of passionate splinter groups that combine a dedication to single-issue objectives with flat refusal to compromise. The grab-bag of single issues includes many stark contradictions: Ron Paul would force deep cuts on the defense budget (not a bad idea, by the way), while others would refuse, insisting on dangerous and self-defeating policies such as threatening war against Iran. These conflicting demands, combined with an unwillingness to compromise on anything can mean only one thing: total gridlock.
According to a recent Gallup poll, the current Republican-led Congress has reached a record low in public esteem—ten percent approval. If it continues its obstructionist policies in this election year, I suspect that it will lose that second digit. Whatever criticism one might make of the Democrat-led Congress—it was an utter folly not to pass a budget before the 2010 election—the Democrats have behaved more responsibly than has the current Republican leadership since they have been willing to compromise on most issues.
One of the casualties of the current political climate is the clear meaning of words. All of the Republican candidates claim to be “conservative,” but in fact the policies they are promoting are radical, and that is, in essence, the opposite of the normal meaning of conservative in the English language, and in its American variant. So, in claiming that radical policies are “conservative,” the candidates are engaging in a form of Orwellian doublespeak. (Is it “elitist” to refer to Orwell?)
Think about it a minute. A conservative is careful about facts. Remember the phrase “a conservative estimate”? Yet almost every claim we hear from today’s self-styled “conservatives” is exaggerated at best and often outright wrong. The only test seems to be, “Can it appeal to the emotions of some single-issue pressure group?” A conservative understands that a changing world requires changes to adapt and flourish, but that changes need to be gradual and incremental if they are to stick. A radical will try to push some favorite idea to an unrealistic extreme and thus block reasonable and necessary change. Conservatism is also not the same as reaction: return to an imaginary utopia of the past—one that exists only in nostalgic imaginations.
America faces several important challenges today. One the most important is adapting its economy to flourish in a rapidly globalizing world. (And don’t forget, globalization is not a policy we can turn on or turn off. It is a world-wide trend to which we must adapt or we will fall behind the successful countries in our quality of life.) We must cure the long-run deficit spending, caused by a combination of irresponsible tax cuts by the Bush-Cheney administration—with Democratic support—, the unnecessary war in Iraq, the irresponsible behavior of the financial sector in creating and inflating the housing bubble, and the growing habit of the American consumer to spend more than he or she earned, running up costly personal debt to unreasonable levels.
How to get out of this? Only by a combination of tax increases on those most able to pay, who happen to be those who have flourished when others have not, combined with a reduction of spending on defense (which is now excessive to our real needs) and adjustments to entitlement programs to ensure their long-term viability. But timing is also important. If we are to pay off our debts in a reasonable period of time and not dump them on our grandchildren we have to get Americans back to work. While the Treasury can still borrow money at historically low rates, it is simply good business to invest in projects that bring returns later. Preeminently, that is education and infrastructure improvement. Therefore, borrowing to produce more in the future is a sound strategy so long as the investments are sound. Those in education and infrastructure pay off; those in arms, for the most part, do not.
In the long run, of course, it will be impossible to bring the deficit under control only with cuts in government spending or only with tax increases, and nobody is a true conservative who refuses to recognize that fact.