Obama, Crisis, and the State

Obama, Crisis, and the State

I am giving a speech in San Francisco today. Here’s a taste:

How should we take the long view after 100 days of Obamamania? In the course of completing my long book about the Reagan presidency and what conclusions we should draw from that experience more than 20 years later, I have been pondering two books from the time. One was Arthur Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History, published in 1986. Say what you will about Arthur, such as the most salient fact—that he was a partisan liberal whose writing was always in service of his cause—he was nonetheless a graceful and provocative writer who was not always wrong because of his views. In 1986 he was attempting to console downcast liberals during the Reagan usurpation that their time would come again. Schlesinger proposed that American political history alternates between the poles of public purpose (that would be liberalism as it is understood today) and private interest (that would be when conservatism is ascendant, as it was in the 1980s.)

Schlesinger’s father, also a famous Harvard historian, had predicted in 1949 that “the next conservative epoch will commence around 1978”—which is just about right, if you look back at the beginning of the Republican surge and the first blows of the tax revolt such as Proposition 13.

In 1986, Arthur the Junior wrote:

We may conclude that public purpose will have at least one more chance. At some point, shortly before or after the year 1990, there should come a sharp change in the national mood and direction—a change comparable to those bursts of innovation and reform that followed the accessions to office of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and of John F. Kennedy in 1961. The 1990s should be the turn of generational succession for the young men and women who came of political age in the Kennedy years.

It might seem at first blush that the arrival of Bill Clinton in 1992 represented the fulfillment of this prediction, but Clinton’s attempts to revive big government liberalism were quickly derailed by his own mistakes and then shattered by the election of 1994. Before long, Clinton felt compelled to declare that “the era of big government is over,” and no less a liberal grandee than Richard Reeves wrote in 1999 that “Wittingly or not, the Democrat who ran as the agent of change gave up after a couple of years and joined the Reagan revolution. . . . Reagan, in fact, is still running the country. President Clinton is governing in his shadow, trying, not without some real success, to create a liberal garden under the conservative oak.”

Obama wants to cut down the “conservative oak” and poison the ground so that it can never sprout again.

I think we can discern Obama’s larger purpose from extending the comparison with Clinton. He aims to succeed where Clinton failed—not just in nationalizing healthcare, but in foreclosing the era of relative conservative governance that saw even Clinton acquiesce to tax cuts, spending restraint, and welfare reform.

In the Reagan years it was sometimes said that the tax cuts and the budget deficit put big government out of business. Obama’s strategy is exactly the opposite: The enormous budget deficit will make programs of tax cuts impossible; to the contrary they will bring pressure for further tax increases, and legitimize an agenda of redistribution.

Schlesinger continued:

If public purpose holds enough problems at bay in the 1990s, this phase will continue until, perhaps toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the nation tires again of uplift and commitment and the young people who came of age in the Reagan years have their turn in power. For, as Emerson pointed out, both conservatism and reform degenerate into excess.

Schlesinger’s timing was off and of course his premises were mischievous, but he is generally right that American politics goes in cycles, and that the time will come again—and might come relatively sooner than expected—that a voting majority of the public will become more receptive to “our side,” that indeed “our side” will have another chance to govern.

This brings me to the second aspect of the current scene, and the second book that I have been pondering: Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, published by Oxford University Press in 1988.

Higgs laid out an analysis of the “ratchet effect,” that seemingly inexorable dynamic by which government grows through crisis—usually war, but he also noted how wartime planning and management became the template for economic crisis. It was the example of World War I that FDR’s New Dealers had in mind in 1933—“we planned in war”—and this thinking can also be discerned in the illuminating phrase of the 1960s—the “war on poverty.”

At the end of the book, Higgs wrote:

We know that other great crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurance. Yet in one form or another, great crises will surely come again, as they have from time to time throughout all human history. When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs. . . . For those who cherish individual liberty and a free society, the prospect is deeply disheartening.

That’s a pretty good description of where we are today. So the long-term challenge for friends of open markets, enterprise, and limited government is to think through the challenge of how to govern the next time the cycle of American politics gives “our side” a chance. The last eight years under President Bush and the GOP Congress were obviously disappointing. How would we do better next time?

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