Liberals are enjoying a moment of confidence. Across the board, there is a sense that the salient political issues are evolving and that demographic shifts are weakening the center-right political coalition. It’s true that the challenges have changed, but more than ever it’s the right, not the left, which has the resources to address the problems of today.
Two liberal columnists recently paraded arguments asserting the decline of the center-right. Ezra Klein wrote that the internal political contradictions of the right and the difficult politics of health care make it unlikely that Obamacare will be replaced, while E. J. Dionne said that the politics of wage stagnation has moved us past the market-driven politics of Reagan and Thatcher. There are ways in which Klein and Dionne are correct. But the right can prove them wrong by rediscovering the wisdom, creativity, and determination of earlier generations of conservatives.
Klein argues that the politics of health care policy is inherently pretty ugly. That might be true, but it is also true that the politics of wage and prices controls were a whole lot more ugly in the 1970s. Repealing price controls during a period of inflation risked alienating working-class white voters, but conservatives figured it out. Conservatives were able to broaden their political coalition even as wage and price controls were dismantled (often by Democrats).
Today, conservatives face the choice of whether to reform health care in a market-oriented way or to surrender slowly to the left’s favored model of comprehensive single-payer health insurance coupled with centralized rationing. The evidence is mixed. Conservatives have sometimes chased self-destructive political fantasies like Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, but they have also embraced Paul Ryan’s plan for premium support Medicare reformwhich has enjoyed support from Democratic figures including Alice Rivlin and Senator Ron Wyden. That is a more radical and free market-oriented health care reform than anything enacted under Reagan (whose administration, if anything, probably did more harm than good with a plan for centrally administered prices for Medicare services.)
E J. Dionne wonders if conservative talk about wage stagnation represents “the moment when those on one side of the political debate are forced to talk about the problems that the other side sees as most pressing.” Like with Klein and health care, Dionne assumes that wage stagnation is inherently a liberal issue. He contrasts wage stagnation with the conservative spirit of the 1980s and 1990s, which argued “that social programs are overrated or even harmful” and that we can no longer hope for “remedies based on a hands-off government” to produce solutions.
This is a rather bizarre telling of the actual history. By Dionne’s reasoning, conservatives talking about welfare policy in the 1980s and 1990s must have represented a shift to the left. But that wasn’t how liberals saw it at the time.
Ah, you might say, conservatives wanted to abolish welfare, so that is all part of the small-government, free-market spirit. It is true that conservative writers Charles Murray and George Gilder argued that AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and other programs promoted dependency and family disintegration, and so should either be sharply reduced or even altogether abolished.
But that isn’t what happened. Working from the ideas of Lawrence Mead, Republican governors and then a Republican-led Congress transformed AFDC from an entitlement to a transitional aid program. They made the welfare system more pro-work and did so through what Reihan Salam has called “conditional reciprocity.” People received temporary help, but the able would also be expected to help themselves. The work requirement-centered welfare reforms of the 1990s were anything but an example of “hands off” government. Conservative reformism has a history of being flexible and applicable to more issues than Dionne chooses to remember.
Conservatives need to bring the same creativity to issues of wage stagnation and declining labor force participation (especially among low-skill males). A menu of policies could include wage subsidies for those who have low-wage jobs to encourage staying in the labor market. It could include tax credits for catastrophic health insurance coverage so that working becomes a better deal even if work means a series of part-time jobs that do not have health benefits. It could mean relocation vouchers to help workers get to places where there are better job prospects. It could mean an expanded child tax credit for working parents. As globalization has put pressure on the earnings of low-skill workers in the tradable sector, we could restrict future flows of low-skill immigration to relieve the wage pressure on workers in the nontradable sector. Some liberals might agree with parts of the above policies. They should be welcomed. Some liberals worked with conservatives to end price controls, and to reform welfare. Some liberals have even worked with Paul Ryan to advance premium support health care proposals. But it is up to conservatives to build a popular agenda based on work and conditional reciprocity.
Klein’s and Dionne’s optimism is ultimately based on poor history and their low estimation of the right. They believe that only liberals have the answersthat only liberals are even interested in the answersto today’s problems. History gives us reason to think that Klein and Dionne might be wrong, but only the actions of today’s conservatives can actually prove them wrong.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.