Ronald Reagan’s great biographer Steven F. Hayward courts charges of heresy by arguing that the Reagan Revolution was in some measure a failure, that its strategy of reining in the welfare state by “starving the beast” of revenues simply made it easier for us to enjoy the benefits of middle class entitlement programs while fobbing the costs off on future generations. The starve-the-beast strategy has been, he asserts, a “spectacular flop.”
There’s so much in this thoughtful and provocative article that it defies easy summary. Hayward affirms that there were some significant conservative victoriesfor example, welfare reform and ending the Cold War. But he also insists that conservatives have thus far failed in dealing with middle class entitlements. And he argues that conservatives have to face squarely certain facts of political life.
There are three dominant political facts of our age that conservative thinkers (and also liberals) need to acknowledge. The first is the plain fact that neither ideological camp will ever defeat the other so decisively as to be able to govern without the consent of the other side. This is not merely my political judgment; it is sewn into the nature of America’s basic institutions and political culture.
The second fact is that the divisions between Left and Right are fundamental and unbridgeable. A frequent trope of political rhetoric is that everyone agrees about the ends; we merely disagree about the means. Although this is often true at the level of a discrete policy issue (for example, broadening access to health care), it is wrong at the deeper level of what might be called the “tectonic plates” that shift individual political battles . . . . Left and Right have conflicting modes of moral reasoning that cannot be easily synthesized or bridged.
Which brings us to the third major political fact of our age: the welfare state, or entitlement state, is here to stay. It is a central feature of modernity itself. We are simply not going back to a system of “rugged individualism” in a minimalist “night watchman” state; there is not even a plurality in favor of this position.
There’s lots more here, and some might argue that his solutions (for example, raising some taxes, means-testing entitlements, and recovering conservative interest in the environment and infrastructure development) are not as bold as his analysis. He ends with the following plea:
It may be that internal ideological reformation must precede bipartisan political compromise. Ideological extremists in both parties have repeatedly succeeded in scuttling tax and entitlement compromises pursued by moderate reformers in their respective parties, and at the moment, the prospects for any compromises seem remote. It is easy and crowd pleasing to blame the intransigence of the other side, but this absolves both sides of serious self-examination and self-criticism without which political progress becomes impossible for both.
I have written this paper in the hopes that my fellow conservatives will recognize the need for a conservative reformation, and I believe that liberals must follow suit. In their current incarnations, both conservatism and liberalism are failing—not just because of poor strategies like starve-the-beast—but also because neither movement has properly adapted to the changing fabric of modern society. Given this, when there is bipartisan compromise between two outdated ideological camps it is usually unsatisfying to almost everyone. The lesson we should draw is that before the two camps can agree to an agenda truly in the national interest, liberals and conservatives must first reform themselves.
I’ve called attention to this article because it is worth discussing (and not just by the wonkish types who visit the AEI website or by the movement conservatives who might come across it elsewhere). Lots of people have disagreed with his analysis.
But I wonder also: is there anyone in the current crop of Republican presidential aspirants who could answer Hayward’s call or at least respond thoughtfully and intelligently to it? (I say this not because I think that the Republican field is peculiarly handicapped in this connection; I cannot imagine President Obama rising above his partisan posture to think any new thoughts.)