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The Road Ahead: Victory in Sight

For reasons that I spelled out in some detail yesterday, it once made sense for conservatives to be disheartened and even defeatist. They have been fighting a rearguard action for nearly one hundred years. But, as I argued, circumstances have changed dramatically. Barack Obama has brought us to the edge of a precipice, and a majority of Americans now recognize that things cannot go on as they have in the past. The welfare state is bankrupt. The Social Security trust fund is paying out more than it is taking in. The Medicare entitlement is unsustainable, and Obamacare threatens to hurl us into the abyss.

We must either roll back entitlements and the administrative state or raise taxes to a level that is bound to extinguish growth and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs – and Americans now recognize the fact. The speech that Barack Obama delivered at George Washington University on 13 April was a reprise of his performance when he accepted the necessity of extending the Bush tax regime in December. He was angry, petulant, and rude to the guests whom he had invited to attend, as is his wont on such occasions. But he caved.

Consider the graph that accompanied John B. Taylor’s discussion in Friday’s Wall Street Journal of the budgets proposed by Barack Obama and Paul Ryan:

As you can see, the President’s original budget envisaged sustaining federal spending at a percentage of GDP (24%) dramatically above the level it reached in the penultimate year of George W. Bush’s Presidency (ca. 19.6%). Paul Ryan’s budget is aimed at bringing it back down to the latter level, and Barack Obama’s second budget, though hardly austere, is considerably less extravagant than its predecessor.

Why did so radical a President give so much ground? The answer resembles the reasoning that explains why he gave in on the Bush tax regime back in December. He may bitterly hate the fact, but he is trapped, as he has often been trapped while President, between his own heart-felt convictions and reality. The economy is sluggish and slowing. As even The New York Times has been forced to acknowledge, Ben Bernanke’s strategy of quantitative easing has failed to generate growth and reduce unemployment. It seems to be producing inflation, instead. We are also on the verge of a fiscal crisis. PIMCO has dumped its treasury bonds, and the Chinese hint that they may throw up their hands and stop purchasing them. S&P has raised questions about the reliability of the federal government’s credit. The dollar is plunging in value, and the price of oil and other commodities is going through the roof. Can you imagine what the misery index is going to look like on the first Tuesday in November, 2012?

The truth is, as Irwin Stelzer intimates, that Barack Obama is going to have to give much more ground. He is not doing at all well in the polls; the independents who put him in the Oval Office have fled. Right now he is grudgingly, reluctantly on the run. But events are moving at a considerably faster pace; he is virtually certain to get the blame for the stagflation on the horizon; and he knows as much. He has to try to dodge responsibility, and he has no hope at all of doing that if he does not to a considerable degree acquiesce. Even then, if truth be told, he is likely to get the blame. A President who pretends to be a Messiah can run, but he cannot hide.

Obama-Job-Approval-April-REVISED_0.img_assist_custom-450x327.gif

Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Obama’s greatest problem is that he has lost the debate. Politely, calmly, steadily, patiently, and over a considerable period of time, Paul Ryan has in his gentle way explained to our fellow citizens that we cannot continue to live beyond our means – not, at least, on the scale that President Obama has in mind. In the meantime, the housing market has not cleared; unemployment has not fallen appreciably; no one wants a tax increase; and Congressman Ryan’s stock has gone steadily up.

Let me add that Obamacare has not fared well with the public. Time has passed, and sentiments have hardened. The latest Rasmussen poll suggests that, by a margin of almost three-to-one, Americans think that Obamacare will increase, not lessen, deficits and medical costs; that by a margin of two-to-one they think that it will worsen, rather than improve, the quality of medical care; and that those wanting repeal form a majority of the populace and outnumber the measure’s supporters by thirteen percent.

So, what is the upshot? Barring a major foreign policy crisis (Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?), the election in 2012 is going to turn on two issues: the economy and Obamacare. There is very little chance that either will play to President Obama’s advantage. My judgment is that the presidential election in 2012 is the Republicans’ to lose.

If the Republicans nominate one of the living dead, as they did in 1996 and 2008, the President may eke out a victory. If, on the other hand, they nominate a woman or man capable of articulating the case for limited government on principled grounds, the case for a balanced budget on prudential grounds, and the case for repealing Obamacare and dismantling the administrative state on every conceivable ground, the Republicans could sweep in such a fashion as to usher in a new political era defined by balanced budgets, low taxes, and decentralization. All that we have to do is find the right standard-bearer.

About the identity of the appropriate standard-bearer I have a thought or two. Stay tuned.

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More by Paul Rahe

  1. John Marzan

    If the republicans nominate a “freakish candidate”, not only will Obama win back the WH, GOP will also lose senate seats.

  2. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    John Marzan: If the republicans nominate a “freakish candidate”, not only will Obama win back the WH, GOP will also lose senate seats. · Apr 27 at 4:22am

    Thanks for this. It is good to know that someone of the stature of Brit Hume shares my suspicions.

  3. The Mugwump

     Scott Brown’s victory Massachusetts was followed by a 63 seat pick-up in the House during the midterms.  So we have a trend.  Meanwhile, nothing has improved on either the domestic or foreign fronts since Obama’s election.  What accomplishments can Obama claim that will put him back in the White House?

  4. River

    Well said, Paul. The accountant’s ledger book has no agenda and cannot be ignored for long. We’re all in store for a huge wakeup. The danger I see is a loss of sovereignty which goes hand-in-hand with the collapse of the dollar.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    River: Well said, Paul. The accountant’s ledger book has no agenda and cannot be ignored for long. We’re all in store for a huge wakeup. The danger I see is a loss of sovereignty which goes hand-in-hand with the collapse of the dollar. · Apr 27 at 5:06am

    Yes, we could fall into the abyss. My suspicion is that a budget deal is in the offing that will delay that event. Paul Ryan has Obama right where he wants him.

    For the record, I think that John Boehner has been superb. In these matters, timing is everything, and Boehner is patient.

  6. AngloCon

    Professor, I’m inclined to agree with your analysis, as much out of desperation as anything else. Then, last week, I see the poll numbers showing large majorities of all demographics, Republicans and tea partiers included, opposed to Medicare reform. That is hardly encouraging when one knows this is the issue on which Obama will try to chip away at his opposition. 

    Do you believe the poll numbers are wrong? Do you believe that, in spite of this issue, other factors will prevail? Do you think the numbers will turn around? I hope that, to some extent you can honestly say “yes” to all three, because the tea leaves ain’t looking too good from my limited perspective.

  7. Bryan G. Stephens

    I am less patient, I guess. As you outlined yesterday, as a conservative, it seems like we always lose. It is hard to tell Boehner from any other GOP “Slower Growth of Government” type. The lies over the budget deal do not make me feel positive about his leadership.

    I keep voting for the only game in town that even gives lip service to restoring government to its proper size. When do we get to win a battle?

  8. nordman
    I would love to believe this, but ultimately I have to believe that Alexis deTocqueville is far better tuned into human nature’s role in this scenario: ‘The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.’ I have difficulty envisioning a wave of altruism sweeping over the millions of government check recipients who have been systematically groomed for dependency since the inception of Johnson’s Great Society. Besides, Republicans are utter wimps for fear of being labeled mean, racist, or confrontational. It’s pathetic.  The theory all sounds great and the essays and books get written, and the logic is sound, but when it comes to the fight, the GOP assumes the fetal position and forfeits the narrative. If the GOP wins the next election it will be a rejection of Obama far more than an embrace of the GOP.; This problem will be fixed only as a result of painful catastrophe and not by politicians trying to sell the idea reforming a deeply corrupted system to a morally corrupted class of government dependents. Hope for the best, yes, but expect the worst – and prepare accordingly.
  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    AngloCon: Professor, I’m inclined to agree with your analysis, as much out of desperation as anything else. Then, last week, I see the poll numbers showing large majorities of all demographics, Republicans and tea partiers included, opposed to Medicare reform. That is hardly encouraging when one knows this is the issue on which Obama will try to chip away at his opposition. 

    Do you believe the poll numbers are wrong? Do you believe that, in spite of this issue, other factors will prevail? Do you think the numbers will turn around? I hope that, to some extent you can honestly say “yes” to all three, because the tea leaves ain’t looking too good from my limited perspective. · Apr 27 at 5:23am

    Edited on Apr 27 at 05:25 am

    Other factors will prevail. Medicare will be kept in something like its present form for older folks such as myself. Something like Health Savings Accounts will be substituted for younger folks. What cannot go on will not go on.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    nordman:

    I have difficulty envisioning  a wave of altruism sweeping over the millions of  government check recipients who have been systematically groomed for dependency since the inception of Johnson’s Great Society. 

    Besides,  Republicans are utter wimps  for fear a being labeled  mean, racist, or confrontational.   The theory all sounds great and the essays and books get written, and the logic is sound,  but when it comes to the fight,  the GOP assumes the fetal position and forfeits the narrative. If the GOP wins the next election it will be a rejection of Obama far more than an embrace of the GOP.   

    This problem will be fixed  only as a result of  painful catastrophe and  not by  politicians trying to sell the idea reforming a deeply corrupted system to a morally corrupted class of government dependents.  

    Hope for the best, yes,  but expect the worst – and prepare accordingly. · Apr 27 at 5:28am

    You are right, but the catastrophe is on the horizon, and Paul Ryan is not a squish.

  11. Bryan G. Stephens
    Paul A. Rahe

    nordman:

    I have difficulty envisioning  a wave of altruism sweeping over the millions of  government check recipients who have been systematically groomed for dependency since the inception of Johnson’s Great Society. 

    Besides,  Republicans are utter wimps  for fear a being labeled  mean, racist, or confrontational.   The theory all sounds great and the essays and books get written, and the logic is sound,  but when it comes to the fight,  the GOP assumes the fetal position and forfeits the narrative. If the GOP wins the next election it will be a rejection of Obama far more than an embrace of the GOP.   

    This problem will be fixed  only as a result of  painful catastrophe and  not by  politicians trying to sell the idea reforming a deeply corrupted system to a morally corrupted class of government dependents.  

    Hope for the best, yes,  but expect the worst – and prepare accordingly. · Apr 27 at 5:28am

    You are right, but the catastrophe is on the horizon, and Paul Ryan is not a squish. · Apr 27 at 5:33am

    The Roman Republic fell to such a catastrophe. My fear is that we will fail as a Republic as we hit it.

  12. Bryan G. Stephens

    Professor,

    Who do you think is among the leaders that do need to come out in 2012? Ryan is doing the heavy lifting in the house, or I would want him. Are their candidates that you think “get it” in the running now?

  13. Scott R

     Professor Rahe: Are you strangely encouraged (or at least not discouraged) by recent polls that indicate a strong majority of Americans believe all politicians, Republican and Democrat, are incompetent, even corrupt?

    If the take-home message of the final couple years of Bush and the first couple years of Obama is that government and the politicians who run it are, by their very nature, inept and untrustworthy, then Americans haved inched toward a more conservative outlook, even if they might not identify it as such.

  14. nordman
    Scott Reusser:

    If the take-home message of the final couple years of Bush and the first couple years of Obama is that government and the politicians who run it are, by their very nature, inept and untrustworthy, then Americans haved inched toward a more conservative outlook, even if they might not identify it as such. · Apr 27 at 6:11am

    What makes you assume that the lost of trust and goodwill  will cause people to necessarily  drift towards conservatism and not towards a breakdown of the sort Plato speaks of in The Republic  ?  

    I look  at the  behavior of union agitators and leftist demagogues in response to reform proposals and i do not get a warm and fuzzy feeling.  The moral erosion we’ve witnessed in this country – the erosion  that has the popular culture always shirking accountability and hunting for scapegoats  does not give me any comfort at all.    

     

  15. Hang On

    Things that the article nor this blog make clear are: What is the assumed growth rate and are recessions over the next 10 years accounted for? You can make all these numbers jump around with different growth rates. You have a pretty good idea of what the numerator is going to be, but frankly the denominator matters more and you have much less of a firm grip on that. So very huge grain of salt on all the numbers.

    Having said that, Ryan’s plan is clearly preferable to Obama’s.

  16. Hang On

    Upon some reflection, I’m not so sure you are going to have that firm a grip on the numerator. What is the assumed interest rate on the debt? Because the debt payments as a percentage of the government expenditures are going to be increasing, the interest rate at which you refinance debt coming due will have an impact on the amount of spending. So even larger grain of salt with these numbers.

  17. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Bryan G. Stephens: Professor,

    Who do you think is among the leaders that do need to come out in 2012? Ryan is doing the heavy lifting in the house, or I would want him. Are their candidates that you think “get it” in the running now? · Apr 27 at 5:53am

    Edited on Apr 27 at 06:01 am

    I will post on this tomorrow.

  18. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    nordman

    Scott Reusser:

    If the take-home message of the final couple years of Bush and the first couple years of Obama is that government and the politicians who run it are, by their very nature, inept and untrustworthy, then Americans haved inched toward a more conservative outlook, even if they might not identify it as such. · Apr 27 at 6:11am

    What makes you assume that the lost of trust and goodwill  will cause people to necessarily  drift towards conservatism and not towards a breakdown of the sort Plato speaks of in The Republic  ?  

    I look  at the  behavior of union agitators and leftist demagogues in response to reform proposals and i do not get a warm and fuzzy feeling.  The moral erosion we’ve witnessed in this country – the erosion  that has the popular culture always shirking accountability and hunting for scapegoats  does not give me any comfort at all.    

      · Apr 27 at 7:02am

    Popular disillusionment is an opportunity. Imagine what things would look like if we were to latch onto a leader who is handsome, eloquent, charming, and refreshingly blunt in telling the truth.

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Hang On: Upon some reflection, I’m not so sure you are going to have that firm a grip on the numerator. What is the assumed interest rate on the debt? Because the debt payments as a percentage of the government expenditures are going to be increasing, the interest rate at which you refinance debt coming due will have an impact on the amount of spending. So even larger grain of salt with these numbers. · Apr 27 at 7:11am

    Edited on Apr 27 at 07:13 am

    Your points are well made. John Taylor’s graph is based on an expected rate of growth, and that expected rate could well be too optimistic. The graph’s only utility is that it allows us to compare the three plans. Ryan’s is plausible. Neither of Obama’s is. As Yogi Berra once remarked, you can predict anything but the future.

  20. Denver Gentleman

     I want to know who the %16 of Republicans surveyed who approve of Obama’s job performance are. They can’t be living in caves because Gallup got a hold of them somehow. Who are these people and what could he have possibly done that they approve of? Perhaps the Predident’s unquenchable bloodlust when it comes to vaporizing people with drones?

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