Ramesh Ponnuru raises a thoughtful objection to Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap”: namely, that it is a mirror image of President Obama’s agenda. Ponnuru writes that Ryan “attempts to move America in a free-market rather than social-democratic direction, and I support that goal; but it is just as transformational, just as ambitious, just as immodest,” something to which he objects because he doesn’t think that “the appropriate response to overreaching liberal comprehensivism is overreaching conservative comprehensivism.”
It is true that in our political system such a comprehensive approach tends to fail, absent some major national crisis. But even if you agree with his basic point that a Republican president and Congress couldn’t usher in the full Ryan Roadmap with a single congressional vote and the stroke of a pen, there are several reasons conservatives have to be more ambitious about reform than they have been in the recent past.
1. The country is further along the social-democratic path than the free-market path. This means that if conservatives want to push the country in the opposite direction, they are going to have to push harder than the liberals. Even if all of Obama’s plans fail, the growth of the country’s existing entitlement programs on auto pilot plus such demographic changes as an aging population will continue to push inexorably in a more social-democratic direction. The longer this trend continues without being seriously contested, the harder it will be to resist politically.
Many of the incremental changes conservatives (defined as the conservative-supported Republicans actually in power) have embraced have actually pushed things in the liberal direction, only slower. Ronald Reagan largely dealt with Social Security’s solvency problems on liberal terms. On health care, Republican-backed incremental changes have included Kennedy-Kassebaum, SCHIP, and Medicare Part D. In some cases, this was to head off Democratic proposals that were more expensive or sweeping. Medicare Part D contained some expansion of health savings accounts and created Medciare Advantage. I’d still argue overall that these programs pushed the country further in a social-democratic direction than in a free-market one.
2. The urgency of the entitlements crisis. The country cannot afford the commitments it has made through Social Security and Medicare. Social Security will start spending more than it is taking in as soon as 2016; Medicare could run out of money around 2017. A “100-year solution” may not be necessary; incremental changes could push the day of reckoning forward. But they cannot avoid the systematic problems permanently, and the longer those problems are ignores the less likely they are to be dealt with on conservative terms.
3. The impossibility of meaningful tax cuts without spending cuts. Without downward pressure on spending, upward pressure on taxes will rise. We are past the point where supply-side economics can deliver what David Frum memorably called “post-Great Society government at pre-Great Society prices.” Without tax cuts, the Republican Party’s economic agenda goes from Ronald Reagan’s to Herbert Hoover’s, a position at least as politically poisonous as trying to ram through the Ryan Roadmap all at once.
4. The Constitution. There is the small matter that most of what the federal government does is unconstitutional. Reversing this and restoring the Constitution ought to be a central task of an authentic American conservatism.
Paradoxically, while liberals eschew incremental reforms and people of conservative temperament prefer them, liberals may be better positioned to benefit from incrementalism than conservatives. Why? Simply because in an era of big government, they have more leeway and more margin for error.