DALLAS -- Ed Feulner is ebullient. And that's -- if you please -- when people around him are saying things like, "We are witnessing the greatest wave of collectivism since the New Deal."
From the rostrum in a Dallas hotel ballroom, the founder and president of the Heritage Foundation surveys a charged-up crowd of 600. Not just a little charged-up; on the contrary, a lot charged-up. These are people who mean business.
It shouldn't, theoretically, be this way. Aren't these people conservatives, broadly defined, and hasn't the president of the United States just signed into law a manifestly un-conservative health care "reform" bill, one that clamps the federal vise -- hard -- on 17 percent of the U.S. economy, at an estimated cost of $2.4 trillion? That would be the point. The president has done precisely that. The right is revved up -- ready to rumble. That would go far toward explaining Feulner's ebullience.
An aging newsman is sitting at a front-row table at a Heritage event. The crowd, on a mid-week morning, has come to hear Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and see whether he can shine some light through the gloom and dismay. The newsman trades observations with all kinds of people who never thought it would come to this, but now that it's come to this, have no intention of sitting back to see what course the gods of Olympus have set for America. To hell with Olympus. We've got people here ready to part with cash and leisure hours to set Congress and the administration straight concerning their, shall we say, misjudgments on health care and other fine points of policy.
A nationally known merchandising executive and his wife are on my right. They'd never heard of Heritage until after the 2008 elections. They've thrown in their lot with the growing number who can't see how health care squeaked by but, now that it's done so, want to start over and do the job right.
A successful, middle-aged white dude from the "right" part of town tells about the hours he and his wife have put in walking the "wrong" part of town in behalf of a conservative, yes conservative, African-American candidate for Congress. I ask if they haven't gotten some stares. Quite a few, he replies. Too bad -- when his son gets home from college this summer, Sonny will be enlisting in the same cause.
Tea Party people, or sympathizers with the movement, are there in abundance, brewing abundant pots of trouble for the liberal agenda on this warm pre-Easter day. There might be a cynic or two or ten in the audience. Let 'em alone. People Power is flexing its muscles and its enterprise.
YOU CAN'T TELL ABOUT A PRESIDENT who plays his emotional cards close the vest. How confident is he, really, in his ability to ram through Congress the rest of his program, from financial regulation to cap and trade to immigration reform? On signing Obamacare into law, Barack Obama was exultant and nothing like conciliatory to his supposedly soggy, washed-up opponents. The so-called Party of No and Congressman Ryan have few rewards to dangle before prospective recruits: save perhaps the reward of helping make the world safe for human freedom. No other enticement, seemingly, has much purchase on the minds of those whom Heritage has brought together for confabulation.>
Matthew Spalding, Heritage official and author of the best-seller We Still Hold These Truths, puts it to a pre-lunch session that "We are at a turning point in our constitutional history…We don't know what is going to happen." The "deep debate" going on isn't about health care or cap and trade, it's about "America and where we are going." We have to "go back to principle -- it's as simple as that, because things that have been true up to now are still true." Americans sense that they "don't govern themselves any more." "It's late in the game, but it's not too late to get involved. I think things are set up in almost a perfect way and that a major shift could occur."
Paul Ryan, a hero already to the audience on account of his unsparing assaults on the premises of health care reform, Obama-style, has no doubt a momentous choice lies ahead of Americans -- to continue in the progressive rut being worn in the soil, or…wait a minute, that's no choice.
"We are quickly approaching a debt crisis in this country." Our present trajectory endangers our fiscal stability, such as it is. In a few decades, to pay for the government we've ordered up, the bottom -- bottom! -- tax bracket will be 25 percent, the highest bracket 88 percent. This, according to Congressional Budget Office calculations. Climate legislation alone, as contemplated by the administration, would require another $1 trillion in spending. And this on top of stupendous shortfalls in our ability to finance Social Security and Medicare without reconfiguration of the pay-in, pay-out scheme.
"We are reaching a tipping point in this country." The figures cascade from Ryan's fluent tongue. Right now 20 percent of Americans get 75 percent of their income from the federal government. An additional 20 percent get 40 percent of their income from the government. Sixty percent get more services in dollar value than they pay in taxes. If things don't change, "we're going to be a different kind of country" -- to wit, "a European-style cradle-to-grave" society, wherein "more people depend on the welfare state than on themselves."
None of which is set in concrete. Barack Obama and the Democrats, it seems clear, poked a hornet's nest when they said boo-hiss to alternative ideas for making health care coverage more general and more affordable. "They were not interested," Ryan says, "in setting up a true market for health care." It's not about health care, you see. "It's about ideology" -- the ideology of state control. Want more state control? Sit back; watch it happen.
Ryan offers few hard and fast predictions as to what the upcoming, pre-election months may hold, save for struggle. He doesn't think the Democrats are prepared to muscle through cap and trade, as they muscled through Obamacare. Card check? Nope. Immigration "reform"? They'll try.
Ebullient Ed Feulner bounces back to the microphone to sum up. He's "selling" Heritage: which means selling what Heritage has ever been about, namely, liberty and limited government. He foresees an expanding marketplace for those commodities as Americans, like the 600 seated before him, latch onto the challenges and perils just ahead. New supporters and donors are falling all over themselves as it were to help Heritage help The Cause. Someone else -- lots of someones -- must have figured out the "tipping-point" business.
A newsman whose memories of political conflict go back, to the '60s thinks to himself this kind of occasion doesn't bear the hallmark of past conservative slumps, say, '74 and '76: partly because the health care came conspicuously in defiance of public opinion; partly because of the energy in the room; partly because so much energy (no government intervention necessary) flows from the tall, young, astoundingly articulate congressman invited to highlight the stakes in the game.
Paul Ryan, to the newsman whose memories of political figures go back to LBJ and Goldwater, looks very much like the real article: the leader conspicuously missing from Republican, much less conservative, affairs this past decade or so. It hurts not a bit that he started in politics as a staffer for Jack Kemp, the king of supply-side economics.
We'll see how it all shakes out. Meanwhile, in the newsman's judgment, the last word belongs to, of all people, Rahm Emanuel -- a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Yes. Here's one American crisis, the battle against the welfare state, to which volunteers are flocking, hoping to waste not a minute; trying to turn things around while there's time. Which there still is.