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Containment, Rollback, and the Debt Compromise

As of now—Sunday morning—word is there’s a deal between the White House and Republicans on a deal to raise the debt ceiling. No tax increases. $1 trillion in immediate budget cuts. A required $1.5 trillion in cuts by November as designed by a bipartisan committee or (if the House and Senate do not agree on them) automatic cuts to Medicare (to scare Democrats) and Defense (to scare Republicans).

If the details are true, and the deal holds, it’s an astonishing achievement for the Right—the most significant conceptual shift in American politics since Bill Clinton announced his support for ending welfare in 1996. Without question, there are elements on the Right that will not see it this way—that will say the deal is a sellout, that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are craven, they are enablers, they are carrying Obama’s water. I’d like to suggest a political analogy from the past that might help explain why they are wrong and why they are being unjust to those who support a deal.

In the wake of the effective Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe after the second world war, the fall of China to Mao, and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, American anti-Communism split into two camps. One camp actively advocated what was called “rollback”—the application of military force to force the Soviets and their clients to retreat from the countries they had overrun. The other camp supported the doctrine of “containment,” which argued for quarantining Communism within the countries that had fallen under Soviet domination and remaining in a state of cold war with the Soviets and their proxies.

Both rollback and containment had as their goal the defeat of the Soviet Union and world Communism. But the strategies were different. The rollbackers said the peril was so imminent the failure to effect the change immediately would lead to the inevitably victory of the Communists. The containment advocates said we did not have the means to roll back Communism militarily, but if we held the line, over time Communism would self-destruct owing to its evil, its impracticality, and its inability to compete with the free peoples of the West.

The rollbackers thought containment was nothing short of capitulation. In 1952, a firebrand senator from California named Richard Nixon denounced those who had degrees from what he called “Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment” as he ran for vice president on the GOP ticket with Dwight Eisenhower. Acheson, a towering figure in American political and diplomatic history, had been Harry Truman’s secretary of state.

Today we remember Truman (and Acheson) as heroes of the Cold War for standing up to the Soviets, saving Western Europe from the advance of Communism, and being so stalwart that they committed U.S. forces by the hundreds of thousands to prevent Stalinist North Korea from breaching the laws of containment and subsuming the South. But to the supporters of rollback in 1952, they were sellout squish liberals and the unwitting (or witting!) agents of Soviet design.

The supporters of rollback were uninterested in the political reality of that moment. They believed the U.S. was locked in a titanic moral struggle literally between the forces of evil and the forces of good, and anything less than the commitment of all available resources to win the battle was a form of surrender. They were morally in the right, but practically in the wrong.

Today those who oppose raising the debt ceiling on the grounds that we need to solve the debt crisis immediately or we will be destroyed by it are the direct descendants of those who supported rollback.

Everyone on the Right agrees that the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal path that must be altered. The difference comes down to the acceptance of political realities. Just as the United States could not effect rollback in the late 1940s (or any time thereafter), so too the Right and the Republican Party cannot effect a revolutionary change of course on July 31, 2011 with the Senate and the White House in liberal Democratic hands. The strategy, like containment, must have a longer time horizon, though it has the same goal: Ending the entitlement state before it swallows up the rest of the country.

The conceptual triumph of the Right is evident in two elements of the supposed deal. Take the fact that there are no new tax hikes. It was only 12 days ago that Barack Obama warned House Majority Leader Eric Cantor not to “call my bluff” and said he would go to “the American people on this.” He did; his poll numbers tanked. The “balanced approach” he advocated backfired on him even though he and his people continued to claim it had overwhelming popular support.

Now take the fact that in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling of $2.5 trillion, there will be corresponding dollar-for-dollar cuts. That establishes a new budgetary precedent, a rational and sound one, on the question of the national debt ceiling, one that will restrain presidents of both parties as we go forward.

So who are Obama and the Democrats in my analogy? They are the accommodationists of the early 1950s (and their progeny throughout the Cold War) who declared that the anti-Communist right was a hornet’s nest of crazy people who would ignite a war and get us all blown up. They wanted peace and harmony and cordial relations with the Soviets and their proxies just as the accommodationists today want to put their heads in the sand and refuse to face the moral and political and fiscal threat emanating from the entitlement state. Whereas the rollbackers were wrong strategically but right morally, the accommodationists were wrong strategically and wrong morally.

But those who advocated containment were right strategically and right morally. And their descendants are right to support the debt-ceiling deal.

 



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