This, That, and the Other Thing

So this is a catch-up post, updating and extending some previous stories here, and with a few new short items worthy of note.

When I wrote my Commentary magazine cover story in October on how liberals were abusing the legacy of Ronald Reagan (especially the gross distortion that “Reagan raised taxes” as a predicate for Obama’s design to raise income taxes today), a friend remarked to me that I’d be correcting the Reagan record until I was in the 80s.  Alas, this appears to be the case.  The latest offender is the WaPo’s Ezra Klein, who on MSNBC piled on Rep. Eric Cantor, who, to be sure, didn’t respond very well to Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes when she presented the usual canard that “Reagan compromised and raised taxes.  So let’s go to the tape again, from my Commentary article:

Reagan never budged an inch [on income taxes], then or in the rest of his presidency. And his stubbornness was the cause of outrage so universal among liberals that they deafened themselves to the populist appeal of Reagan’s supply-side policies—so much so that Walter Mondale came to believe it was a sensible strategy to tell the American people in his 1984 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that he was going to raise their taxes.

Reagan’s adamancy extended into his second term, when even Republicans like Sen. Robert Dole said publicly that Mondale had been correct and that Reagan would be forced to agree to higher tax rates. Instead, early in 1985, Reagan invoked Clint Eastwood’s brand-new sound bite when he declared that members of Congress “seem to be in full-scale retreat from spending cuts and are talking about raising people’s taxes again. Well, let them be forewarned: I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: ‘Go ahead, make my day.’”

His determination was surely strengthened by the fact that the “balanced approach” he had advocated in the 1982 budget deal had never come to pass. TEFRA was designed to bring about $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue, which meant that, on paper, it advanced Reagan’s goal of shrinking the federal government. In practice, the results of TEFRA were almost exactly the opposite. While the tax increases were real, Congress never delivered on the spending cuts. By one calculation, the 1982 budget deal actually resulted in $1.14 of new spending for each extra tax dollar. Obama and today’s liberals have responded with incredulity to the Republicans’ refusal to take a 3-for-1 cuts-to-taxes deal (or a 10-to-1 deal, as was posed hypothetically to the GOP presidential field in an Iowa debate). Some of us have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.

All of these details, especially the crucial distinction between kinds of taxes, are airbrushed out of the liberal account today.

Second, regarding my post yesterday criticizing Romney’s stubbornness about the individual mandate in his Massachusetts health care plan, commenter John Burke wrote in to object:

Obviously, Obamacare’s individual mandate precipitates a Constitutional question about the limits of governmental power (which is why the issue in now pending before the Supreme Court) — but it is an issue about the limits of FEDERAL governmental power. There is not a shadow of doubt that the 50 sovereign states can do whatever they wish, provided their state constitutions permit it and the federal constitution does not bar it. This is the essence of the 10th Amendment.

There is a lot of baloney being pushed under the guise of “Constitutional conservatism.”

The distinction between federal and state police powers is a reasonable point to make, and one which I discussed with the Romney confidante but left out of yesterday’s post.  And while I agree that there is more constitutional latitude for the states to impose a mandate, I am not sure that is necessarily the end of the argument, and certainly doesn’t justify calling the argument “baloney.”

Let’s do a simple thought experiment.  If the 50 states individually imposed something that we agree the federal government could not impose, does that mean it would be without any problems whatsoever?  Beyond the merely formal restrictions of the Commerce Clause on the reach of government power, is there no principled objection beyond the black-and-white text of state constitutions to this kind of reach by the government?  Mr. Burke says there is “not a shadow of doubt that the 50 sovereign states can do whatever they wish,” but I doubt that if the 13th Amendment had been written more narrowly to apply only to the federal government he would think that any of the 50 states could re-impose slavery.   Surely the police power of state governments is not unlimited.

The broader argument over the individual mandate is less about the jurisprudence of the Commerce Clause than it is about the fundamental question of the limits of government power at any level.  Put more directly, is an individual mandate at any level compatible with a free society?  It was once thought so by some conservatives (e.g. Newt and the Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, and Romney in 2003).  And it is worth keeping in mind that the practical alternative to the individual mandate is higher taxes to pay for free riders.  So it’s not an open-and-shut question.  It is unfortunate in some ways (and perhaps a mistake in the long run) that this issue is being rendered as a Supreme Court case, rather than seeing the objection to the mandate as an objection to the reach of government itself.  Paul Rahe’s extended reflections on this point are a good place to start.

Finally, who knew that the rescue for Arizona’s terrible housing market would come from . . . North Dakota oil workers!  Fossil fuels: is there anything they can’t do?

Responses