Big Trouble Now?

Our friend and occasional Power Line contributor Paul Rahe writes over on Ricochet of his disappointment with Mitch Daniels’ decision not to run, while noting the misgivings he had about Daniels all along, namely, his ill-advised call for a “truce” on social issues. Rahe goes one step further here, thinking Daniels should have reached this decision months ago:

We as Republicans and we as Americans have been ill-served by the Governor. . . In ordinary times, Governor Daniels’ conduct might not much matter. But we are living in an extraordinary time. Barack Obama has led us to the edge of a precipice, and he has forced us to look into the abyss. For the first time in my lifetime the American people understand tolerably well what is at stake. If we do not set things straight now – if we do not find a way to pare back the entitlement state and get our fiscal house in order without raising taxes to a level likely to choke economic growth – we are apt to go the way of France in combining economic stagnation and high structural unemployment with military incapacity. And if that happens, the results will be far worse for us than for the French. They had the Americans to defend their interests, and we have . . . no backstop. If, for understandable personal reasons, Governor Daniels was not going to be in a position to become our standard-bearer, it was incumbent on him to say as much long ago.

But let’s go back to the whole “truce” business for a moment. My view was that Daniels proposed the wrong truce. The social issues–abortion, gay marriage, the “culture”–are precisely what we should argue about most in our politics, as they reach to fundamental principles of human nature, the family, and individual rights. No one likes doing so; the arguments are often unpleasant and emotional. But they are necessary. (I’ll add, by the way, that environmental issues belong in the “social issues” basket because environmentalism has taken on many aspects of religious belief, such that people who disagree with the so-called “consensus” are attacked in moral terms.)
In fact, it is the urgent existential problem of our fiscal abyss that Rahe points to that requires a truce. I keep being drawn back to the conclusion of Bill Voegeli’s important book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. (Do read this extraordinary book if you haven’t.) Voegeli summarizes the problem thus: “Liberals who want a bigger welfare state and conservatives who want a smaller one have a big thing to fight about, but nothing really to talk about. Liberals who understand the finitude of the resources available to the welfare state, and conservatives who understand the futility of dismantling it, do have things to talk about, however.” Voegeli goes on to outline the main terms of a truce: “If liberals and conservatives decide they can do business with each other it will be because conservatives accept they’ll never sell voters on the huge benefit reductions they ultimately seek, and because liberals decide they’ll never sell the huge tax increases they ultimately need.”
That’s the outline of the truce that is necessary if reform of the entitlement state is going to be possible. There is one obvious policy mechanism for securing both of these ends: means-testing for entitlement programs. Some conservatives (and the Ryan plan) have embraced this in principle. Liberals are more wary, as are conservatives of the premise embedded in it of recognizing the permanent legitimacy of the welfare state. Both parties fear splitting their own constituencies, and this is a genuine problem. Conservatives fear agreeing to such terms will be to accept a losing position over the long run. Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute has written: “[T]here is no evidence that if conservatives agree not to try to roll back the welfare state, liberals will agree to restrain its growth. More likely, conservatives will simply become involved in a bidding war, in which they will inevitably look like the less caring party.” Liberals worry that embracing means-testing for entitlements will weaken them as totem of a broader universal social contract, and by making them “poor peoples'” programs will lead to an eventual decline in public support, and lead to their ultimate demise.
The fallout from Newt’s comments about the Ryan plan a week ago shows that we’re still in a very tough spot. Before the right and the left can have the conversation Voegeli calls for, conservatives and liberals need to have the basic conversation amongst themselves on a very fundamental level. We cannot expect our political leaders to reach compromises on grounds that are not acceptable to the thought leaders of their forces. Daniels might have been the ideal person to attempt to broker a deal to stabilize our welfare state. The present difficulties in the way of progress might have been an even bigger deterrent to him than his family’s reluctance.