As a social conservative who has written extensively about abortion, stem-cell research, family structure, failing schools, the degradation of popular culture, and abstinence education, I submit, without fear of misinterpretation, that the next two elections are not going to be about those issues.
That isn’t to suggest that social issues are unimportant; they are critically important. And, of course, social patterns affect politics. There is, for example, no question that unwed childbearing contributes far more to poverty in America than the recession has. Abortion is immoral — and a majority of Americans now see that. And ineffective schools affect our economic productivity and competitiveness. We must reverse some of these trends if we hope to have sustained prosperity and political and social vitality in the long run.
But the short run needs attention more urgently. In the short run, the elections will be about the scope of government. They will be referenda on what the Democrats have done with their power.
The liberal Democrats had been waiting 44 years for this moment. Though two Democrats had been elected president with majorities in Congress since LBJ, neither Carter nor Clinton campaigned as a liberal or achieved a large electoral majority. Carter was defeated after one term, and Clinton was obliged to trim his sails and declare that the “era of big government” was over.
But Obama did campaign as a liberal, and unlike his two Democratic predecessors, he assumed office with a comfortable margin of victory (Obama’s share of the popular vote was 52.9 percent, compared with 50.1 for Carter and 43 for Clinton). Democrats were delirious. The image that best captured the ambitions of the victorious party was the Nov. 24, 2008, cover of Time magazine in which Obama was depicted as FDR — cigarette holder between his teeth, broad smile, jaunty air — in short, a liberal Democratic fantasy fulfillment.
Even taking into account the bloat of government under Republican leadership, President Obama and the Democrats have more than justified that Time cover. In fact, Obama’s Democrats will outspend (pre-war) FDR by a considerable margin. During the Depression, federal spending averaged 12 percent of GDP. According to projections from the Office of Management and Budget, federal spending during the Obama administration will average 24.1 percent of GDP. In his first year alone, President Obama increased federal spending by 22 percent.
The federal government will borrow an estimated $3.7 trillion by 2011. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “That is more than the entire accumulated national debt for the first 225 years of U.S. history. By 2019, the interest payments on this debt will be larger than the budget for education, roads and all other non-defense discretionary spending.”
When you consider the Obama ascendancy as a case of pent-up liberal Democratic demand, things come into better focus. How else to explain why a Democratic government would push through a new trillion-dollar health-care entitlement when large majorities of the electorate have signaled near-panic over growing government debt? How else to explain the $800 billion stimulus (whose funds went largely to public-sector union workers) and the obese budgets? “This is our time,” candidate Obama intoned in 2008, “This is our moment.”
But their moment came too late. If this had been 1980 or 1990 or even 2000, the Democrats might not have suffered the backlash they are now enduring from the electorate. But they chose to indulge their spending spree just when Americans were sobering up about past overspending in their private lives. The recession was a smack across the head reminding people that those jumbo mortgages and home-equity loans were mistakes — that eventually the bills come due.
The Obama moment was further undermined by reports from state capitals. Big-spending states like New Jersey and California are verging toward bankruptcy, while more modest state governments like those in Texas and Virginia remain sound. As if that weren’t enough, examples from abroad painted bold letters on the wall. Greece and France were paralyzed by strikes and even riots by public employees protesting any reduction in their sinecures. Nevertheless, Germany, France, and Great Britain have begun to back away from the precipice by reducing spending. Even Cuba has decided that its government is too big.
That’s what the next two elections will be about. Liberal Democrats might want to frame that Time magazine cover featuring Obama as FDR — that was their high-water mark.