When it comes to the power of imagination, it is hard to top either liberals or children. On the night before Christmas, millions of representatives of both groups had their wishes fulfilled: for the kiddies, gifts from Santa Claus (really their parents in disguise); for liberals, a federally restructured health care system courtesy of Senate Democrats (who don’t even bother to dress up as the taxpayers who will actually foot the bill).
For an example of the latter’s childlike enthusiasm, behold the visions of sugar-plums dancing in New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s head. The more substantive part of his Christmas Eve column revises Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The way Krugman tells it, come 2014, the Cratchits can rely on the federal government for Tiny Tim’s health insurance rather than Ebeneezer Scrooge.
God bless us, everyone. But as easy as it is to mock an alleged grown-up for reasoning along Krugman’s lines, one must confront an uncomfortable fact: much of what liberals imagine eventually becomes what passes for reality in Washington. By contrast, conservatives tend to lack imagination, preferring to think of themselves as members of the Beltway’s reality-based enclave.
Realism has its virtues, of course. But what conservatives often practice is really a kind of stoicism in which they resign themselves to living in the America of liberal imagination. The Senate roll call had barely been read last Thursday before right-thinking types were sullenly declaring the battle lost and predicting they’d never have the votes to undo what the Senate Democrats had just done.
So bound are they by liberal rules the best Senate Republican leaders could hope to do was offer amendments to trip up the Democrats by catching them in some kind of contradiction. Why, did you know that by voting for this health care bill Democrats might cut Medicare? Or raise taxes on people outside the richest 1 percent of taxpayers? Or give sweetheart deals to red-state Democrats like Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu?
Creative liberals can sometimes be more realistic than their opponents. They are more effective at mobilizing constituencies that stand to benefit from Washington power grabs than the other side is at mobilizing the people who will see their money stolen, their rights imperiled, their values trampled upon, and their status quo upset. Liberals can afford to expand government incrementally because the “ratchet effect” described by economist Robert Higgs renders most of the marginal encroachments irreversible.
The ratchet effect is real, but the reason it looks as ironclad as a law of physics is that the countervailing influence is practically nonexistent. The Senate passes a bill that imposes an individual mandate to purchase health insurance that was unpopular even in Massachusetts, that increases taxes and spending, that compels taxpayer subsidies of abortion, that polls badly, and that is vastly from what already passed the House. And Republicans want to talk about Medicare cuts.
Here is the difference: Many Republicans are looking for issues to use successfully against the Democrats in the 2010 elections. Fair enough. But then what? Democrats are looking to create conditions that will favor them over the long term by building a bigger government secure enough to survive temporary electoral setbacks.
Back when he was still a senior editor at National Review, Joseph Sobran pointed out, “The real opposite of a legislating party is not a foot-dragging party, but a party of repeal.” The filibuster is a very fine thing, but what would really have Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid quaking in their boots is the prospect of “a conservative Congress whose chief business will be chopping down the jungle of bad laws that oppress us, laws that range from misconceived to iniquitous and unconstitutional.”
Politically unrealistic, you say? Perhaps, but how is it any less realistic than a strategy that seeks to keep taxes and spending under control while accepting the permanent growth of the federal government as inevitable? Even if, say, the health care legislation cannot be defeated or repealed, it opponents should think of ways to attack its taxes, subsidies, and regulations, and to use its trappings to promote a real national free market.
Anything less would be a failure of imagination. Think: Tiny Tim, taxpayer. If conservatives were ever to become as imaginative as liberals, it would scare the Dickens out of Paul Krugman.
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