Since President Obama’s relatively narrow yet still clear re-election victory, both liberals and conservatives have engaged in a virtual non-stop orgy of analysis geared toward explaining the result. Some of this discussion has been useful as Republicans have been forced to come to grips with the fact that they have been pushing away Hispanics and relying on assumptions about the way social issues played with most voters that may no longer be true. But, as happens after almost every election, there is also an equal amount of nonsense being put forward about how 2012 marks a turning pointing in our political history that may lead to realignment. As recently as 2005, Republicans were playing this game and now it is the turn of liberals to jump to unsustainable conclusions.
The latest example of this sort of writing comes in today’s New York Times as Sheryl Gay Stolberg details her journey to Montana to claim President Obama’s success with young voters may lead to an irreversible shift in the country’s political alignment. Her thesis is that the Democrats’ advantage with this demographic isn’t merely limited to the way their acceptance of gay marriage and abortion have affected those under 30. Instead, she goes farther than that and claims that young voters are now as addicted to entitlement spending as some of their elders. This belief in the goodness of government largesse and the alleged corresponding decline in cynicism about big government will create a new political reality that will be baked into the system even as these voters get older.
There is no denying the appeal of free stuff from the government for citizens of any age or background. In 21st century America, everyone has their snout in the proverbial trough of federal spending and that impacts attempts to cut spending or to rally support for fiscal sanity. But the problem with the belief that the young Montanans who like the idea of preserving Medicare and Social Security as they are today will form a Democratic firewall to preserve an Obama majority indefinitely is that the assumption upon which this idea rests is built on sand. Sooner or later most young members of the workforce are going to catch on to the fact that they are the losers in the liberal entitlement Ponzi scheme, not the winners.
President Obama isn’t likely to have much trouble getting the Senate to confirm Jack Lew as his new treasury secretary. Though Senator Jeff Sessions has vowed to try and stop Lew, there is nothing in the nominee’s long record of service to Democratic presidents that would disqualify him for the office. Given the fight that is brewing over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for the Department of Defense and the CIA, there is little appetite on the Hill for any further effort to deny the president his choice to run an important department.
But even though Lew will probably be easily confirmed, his nomination is one more signal that there may be no way to avoid more bitter and counter-productive confrontations with Congress over the budget. Lew is well known to be a hard-core progressive who, during the negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, made it clear that he opposes any true reform of entitlement spending. Having run to the left and won re-election, President Obama is entitled to try and govern from the left. Lew’s selection illustrates that this is his intention. But though he may have a mandate to govern, that doesn’t give him the power to alter reality. If he isn’t prepared to start thinking about cutting spending, then no amount of rhetorical excess will prevent this country from going further down the road to insolvency.
With the president’s election victory still fresh in their minds, Democrats are assuming that Tuesday’s results mean that Congressional Republicans are bound to bow to their demands for tax increases. Such sentiments are understandable given the Democrats’ clear victory in the presidential contest as well as their gains in Congress. Having campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy, there may be little reason to assume President Obama is going to back down on his demands and, as many liberals have already pointed out, he’s going to be bitterly criticized if he does compromise on his soak-the-rich approach. Yet though Republicans may still be shell shocked by the election returns, there is no reason for them to cave in on their principles just because the president and his media cheering section expect them to.
House Speaker John Boehner sounded an appropriate note, albeit one that was pure political boilerplate, when he said yesterday, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led — not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead, not as a liberal or a conservative, but as president of the United States of America.” But his airy rhetoric contains a kernel of truth. If the country is to avoid going over the fiscal cliff in the next month, and avoid the terrible consequences that would result from a failure to reach a budget deal, it is going to require the kind of presidential leadership and ability to compromise that Obama has never been willing to provide in his first four years in office. The question before the country is not so much the one that liberals have been asking about Republicans simply waving the white flag as it is whether the president can actually bargain in good faith and get a deal.
Liberals are catching their breath after spending the first few days after Mitt Romney’s announcement of his vice presidential choice huffing and puffing about how happy they are to have Paul Ryan to attack this fall. But amid the complacent over-confidence, some are claiming to welcome the opportunity to have a debate about debt and the budget that Ryan’s presence on a national ticket will ensure. On the New York Times’ op-ed page, Joe Nocera attempts to broach the discussion in a serious manner while on the paper’s website, the less serious Roger Cohen also writes that such a debate would be good. Both seem to assume that most Americans share their prejudices about Ryan’s “radical” ideas about shrinking government but understand that the instinctive liberal refusal to contemplate a limit to federal spending is bad for the country’s long-term security.
This shows that despite their glib self-assurance that Americans can be Mediscared out of listening to Ryan’s ideas about reforming the government, some on the left are beginning to understand that Democrats must come up with an answer to the challenge posed by the intellectual leader of the GOP. Read Virginia Postrel’s suggestion yesterday in Bloomberg that the Republicans place Ryan front and center in a series of infomercials about the fiscal crisis this fall. The model would be the half hour prime time commercials that were broadcast by Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992 in which the eccentric and wealthy independent galvanized public attention on the budget with hand-held charts and lectures. While this idea may give heart attacks to some of Mitt Romney’s media consultants, it has some merit. For all of the arguments we’ve heard lately about the public’s willingness to listen to serious budget proposals like the one promoted by the GOP veep, the Republicans ought not to ignore the possibility that giving Ryan the opportunity to present his ideas is the last thing President Obama should want.