Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Struggle for the Soul of the Republican Party

David Frum has an article in today's National Post in which he does his best to confuse the serious issues of political philosophy being debated today in the United States. He begins by asking: "Is Obama a socialist?" and he says that no, he is not, even though he simultaneously admits that a lot of current US federal government policy looks socialist. So why not call Obama a socialist?

Frum says we should not call Obama a socialist because many of the entitlement programs and much of the national debt is the responsibility of George W. Bush and how can we call Republicans socialists? The problem here is that "socialist" is used in the US as a smear; it is such an unpopular view that to label successfully your opponent as "socialist" is to discredit him or her in the minds of the majority of voters. We can call this the "connotative meaning" as opposed to the "descriptive meaning" of the word. In the UK, where socialism is vastly more advanced and more popular, politicians who advance Obama-like policies are content to be known as socialist; it is just a description of what they stand for.

But why does Frum shrink from describing Obama's big government, high taxation, expansion of the welfare state as moving toward socialism or as socialism in stages? He is afraid that the label will be turned back on him and the big government wing of the Republican Party of which he is a part.

The Republican Party has been cautiously progressive, that is, committed to the New Deal for over half a century. The party establishment beat back the Goldwater challenge in the 60s but found itself unable to prevent Reagan from becoming president in 1980. But it fought a quiet rearguard action against the small government wing of the party represented by Reagan in order to prevent the dismantling of the welfare state or even the shrinking of the size of government during the Reagan years. All Reagan was able to do was to slow the rate of growth of the federal government.

So the Republican Party is divided into a big government wing and a small government wing and the uneasy compromise achieved during the Bush years was an agreement to lower taxes without cutting the federal budget. This, of course, is not a viable long-term strategy. It is a temporary truce which allows the Republican Party to avoid a division into two parties that would ensure a permanent majority for the Democratic Party.

Why does David Frum criticize Sarah Palin so much? It is because she comes from the small government wing of the Republican Party. Why does he fear and seek to discredit the Tea Party? Same reason. Why does he not label Obama a socialist? It is because he is just as much a socialist as Obama and he is allowing the progressives to shape the narrative.

The progressive narrative sees the big government, ever-expanding welfare state as America's inevitable destiny. So the political spectrum has to be defined as those who want to proceed full steam ahead toward European-style social democracy (liberal) versus those who want to go more slowly and carefully and bring more of the undecided voters along (conservative), which is how the spectrum is defined in Europe. This debate was at the heart of Democratic debates over health care (i. e. single-payer now or eventually?). In this narrative, then, big government Republicans are "good little Republicans" - essentially just like "conservative Democrats." They get invited to swanky cocktail parties with celebrities and the NYT employs them as columnists. They play a useful function for the goal of the progressives is to control both parties and thus block out any serious challenge to their power.

The Tea Party, however, is a threat because it seeks to take over the Republican Party and marginalize the big government Republicans like Lindsay Graham and John McCain. At stake is the definition of what it means to be conservative. If the Reagan, small-government wing of the Republican Party prevails, then conservative will mean their stance rather than the Bush, big government wing's stance. Frum is not just concerned about the reputation of his former boss, he is concerned about the big government Republican wing losing control of the party.

He distorts the motives of the small government wing of the party badly in the following passage:
In 2009, the US health economy reached a symbolic tipping point: for the first time, more than 50% of the dollars spent on health were spent by some agency of federal or state government. Sounds like socialism, right? But this tipping point was not driven by President Obama. It was driven by the growth of Medicare – and last I heard, it was President Obama who was proposing slowdowns in Medicare spending, and it was Sarah Palin and the Tea Party activists who were denouncing reductions in Medicare as tantamount to “death panels.”
Where to begin in untangling this mess. First, there are two ways to reduce Medicare spending. One is the Democratic way of death panels. Essentially, what they propose is to reduce spending on seniors during the expensive last couple of years of life and ration resources. This will have the effect of letting people die a little earlier than otherwise, but the potential for savings is huge. The other way to reduce the unsustainable growth in Medicare spending is the one proposed by Paul Ryan's "Roadmap." He proposes that Medicare become a means-tested social safety net instead of a middle class entitlement. Basically, he wants middle class Americans who can afford it to pay for their own health care and use government programs only for those in need. But this is anathema to Democrats because it reduces the size and control of government.

Frum does not distinguish between those who want the status quo and those who want to reform the welfare state to preserve a safety net for the poor and needy while simultaneously reducing taxes and growing the private sector. Why? Because this distinction does not fit the progressive narrative. They want you to believe that there are only two choices: bankruptcy or higher taxes. And any other choice involves being heartless, cruel and having no social conscience. This is a self-serving piece of propaganda whether it is spouted by the Democrats or by the Republicans.

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