The Therapy Sessions
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
(The following contains forward-looking statements about the evolution of the political parties in the US. I know that it is folly to predict the future, but hey, it's fun.
Somebody can point out how wrong I was in the future).
While all the debate in Washington is over the long term viability of Social Security (a serious, but manageable, problem), the growth of the malignant tumor that is Medicare continues. And Washington looks away.
Actually, if they just looked away it might be preferable. But they seem inclined to speed Medicare's malignant growth, by larding the scope of its entitlement with all kinds of unneccessary therapies: Medicare to Cover Drugs for Impotence.
Medicare will be far more expensive, and far more difficult to deal with politically, than Social Security. It is in deeper trouble right now, and it will go into the red much sooner.
The crushing fiscal burden is coming. It is avoidable. But I don't want to dwell on that. My question is this: what kind of effects will this have on the US political landscape?
I think they will be profound for both the Democrats and the Republicans. I'm betting this will cause one party to marginalize, and it will cause the other to split - in their characters, if not in their names.
First, the Democrats. I must find an agreeable definition of their brand of contemporary liberalism, and I come up with this: the Democrats are motivated by a belief that the problems of society can be cured by a benevolent government employing new and innovative government programs, paid for by a system that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor.
Can we agree that this thinking is now the basis of the modern Democratic Party?
But what happens when this thinking starts eating its young? That is, what happens when the costs of existing government promises are so high that new and innovative government programs cannot even be considered? The costs are so high that in order be electable, even Democrats must start promising to cut other government programs to pay for more popular ones?
The answer is that you will get stagnation, and we may already be seeing some of that in the current Democratic Party: there are so many things that they want to promise (national health care, child care programs, expanded educational opportunities), but they cannot. They hint at these things, but they are unwilling to promise them. They would, naturally cost money, and that would mean taxes.
Democrats have had this painful lesson pounded into them in election after after election, and they may be about to learn it: it is very difficult to get elected by promising to raise taxes, even on the rich. Most Americans don't hate the rich; they aspire to be rich. And everyone knows that the rich can hire the best accountants to find all the juiciest deductions in our crazy tax code anyway. (This was the absurdity of the Kerry-Edwards ticket: two spectacularly rich men who paid around 12% of their income in taxes promising to raise taxes on the rich. To what? Higher than the 35% they were supposed to pay? Raise them to 50% and see if we can get people like Kedwards to pay 20%?)
Thus, the Democrats end up beating the old horses that have worked for them in the past: we will protect reproductive freedom, guarantee fair opportunity for all, and by God, we will keep those government checks flowing...
Year upon year, that will (has?) become boring. (And in a time when national security is again a priority with Americans, it becomes irrelevant: it is not enough to say "oh yeah, and we'll keep the country safe too.").
Parties must have long term visions; objectives that motivate the swing voter and the hard core wingnut alike. National health care once had that kind of appeal. But I think most people realize that the day is rapidly coming when the sole social function of government will boil down to little more than mailing out checks for Social Security and Medicare. Every department in Washington will be pared to meet this overwhelmingly need, and quite frankly, tangential departments (Commerce, HHS, Interior (EPA), Education) are going to be hit much harder than "essential" departments (justice and defense).
Unfortunately for the Democrats, their true believers - the hard core liberals who run their get-out-the-vote campaigns - will not be motivated by such limited vision. These are the people who are now pulling the party in the direction of Howard Dean; if moderate Democrats allow it, they will make the party virtually unelectable - a combination of weakness on national security and carelessness on spending.
But the moderates may have no choice: their party needs these people.
One way or another, the hard core of the Democratic Party is moving left. They will either break from the Democratic Party entirely and become a new party of modern-day "Know Nothings," or they will take the party's name with it and make it unelectable.
Where does liberalism go then? The way of the Dodo bird?
There is a fault line in the Republican Party that will increase in prominence as the liberal Democrats fade in significance. It is the difference between people like me (fiscally conservative, socially libertarian, foreign policy Jacksonian...i.e. those annoying "neo-conservatives") and them: the social conservatives, who believe that it is the job of the government to mandate their vision of morality. This fault line is going to become increasingly polarized as the real national debate occurs inside the Republican party over issues like immigration, abortion, drug policy, gays and trade.
I don't really think the Republican Party can have a big enough tent to accomodate all that sparing. In effect, they will split as well.
The disaffected Libertarian wing will meet the disaffected moderate Democratic wing in the center of American politics. I can't tell you whether this group will label themselves as Republican or Democrat, but I believe that it will be where the votes are. I believe the political views of this cohort will middle-of-the-road on most issues; they will advocate a strong foreign policy, and they will be ambivalent toward issues like abortion and gay marriage. Circumstances will dictate that they will not propose new government entitlements or programs, but will go about the necessary work of redefining what government is supposed to do (many government jobs will have to be privatized or eliminated to accomodate the huge expenses of the baby boom generation and the entitlements it has voted to itself). There will still be huge debates within this party about trade and immigration.
For lack of a better example of this kind of political force in action, look no further than California's Arnold Swarzenegger: as unlikely and comical as his political rise has been, his politics represent the increasing potency of this moderate wing of governance. I know nothing about Arnold's chances for re-election, but the dreadful fiscal state of California is where Washington is headed. Just as the Democrats there couldn't seem to govern (they weren't able to cut programs or raise taxes - while Arnold is doing both), the old school Democrats in Washington will soon find "business-as-usual" to be a loser politically.
Who will take this political tide national into the presidency? My bet is that it will be John McCain. As wrong as he is on issues like campaign finance, he fits the mold that this moderate group of voters will be looking for: strong on defense, a fiscal conservative and a social moderate (And he is a lot more likeable and intelligeable than the current occupant of the White House).
It is only natural that the entitlements crisis will cause a sympathetic seismic shift in American politics. That will happen.
Will be my vision become reality?