A Constitutional Moment. Sometime?

To my constricted mind, elections are like meteorological events. They happen, at more or less regular intervals. People can’t stop talking about them. If I had a desire to participate actively in either, it wouldn’t make a difference; and so I never have and never will. I’d be grateful if electoral politics and the weather could stay in the background, where they belong; but if they intrude all too much I’ll move, uncomplainingly, to a place where they don’t . In short, I don’t have any actual opinion on Tuesday’s election or its outcome, only a few rain-drenched musings:

The thing to behold is the breathtaking professionalization of our politics. Political parties and operatives can micro-target and mobilize every last voter, focus-group and finesse every ad in every precinct and medium. Because the pros are not going to leave anything on the table, every election will be basically 50:50. Thus, small events—a purloined campaign video, an indifferent debate performance, a storm—assume outsized significance, because the margins are so small.

As each side has to compete for the marginal voter while keeping partisans on board, political campaigns elevate trivial policy differences into points of principle. Moreover, government itself becomes a permanent campaign, because you have to buy or at least rent the decisive voting blocs as soon as you can. (This style of government according to Rove and Plouffe works, by the standards of their trade.) No government will be able to claim a mandate—because the election wasn’t about any serious differences in the first place, and because razor-thin margins (and, as now, divided government) don’t enable the winner to do much of anything. These results will obtain even if the country’s status quo is truly miserable and if absolutely everyone is convinced that this is so.

The miserable condition, I argued here, is an unsustainable, let’s-have-it-and-not-pay-for-it transfer state that both parties promised to maintain. We are stuck with that condition, as we would have been under President Romney. What now?

For advanced democracies in the transfer state predicament, there are only two ways out. One is a responsible Social-Democratic party that is (1) cognizant of the fact that a wrecked economy would also wreck its constituencies and (2) capable of holding labor unions in line. Successful reform countries—Canada, Germany, Sweden, and (more arguably) Brazil—all  have that dynamic in common. America had but forfeited that chance in 2008, with Mr. Obama’s victory over Mrs. Clinton. The moment is gone for good, and Mrs. Clinton (should she enter the 2016 sweepstakes that started yesterday) will go nowhere. The new face of the party is Elizabeth Warren et al—brutal, ruthless hacks from Harvard.

The only other way out is a political force that offers a competing social model. That force, and that model, does not now exist—largely, I suspect, on account of our grimly professional politics. Conservatives felt compelled, for eight long years, to defend the Bush administration, an exercise that left them exhausted and compromised. After 2008, they should have done what opposition parties normally do—rethink, and regenerate. Alas, there was never any time for that: all the energy went into a fight against Obamacare, stimulus bills, etc.

The natural temptations is to keep it up: the people voted for “the people’s House” to keep taxes low. Maybe. But they also voted to keep benefits high, and so there’s the problem. A responsible opposition, it seems to me, would have to start at the opposite end—not with some clever promise to move crucial voting blocs (Hispanics, blue-collar Catholics), but with the truth: the country is broke. Our institutions are broken.  Our economy is on the ropes. To fix the mess, you must give up something; but we have a plan that makes it worth your while.

That pretty much sums up The Federalist. The difference between Publius and us is the willingness to tell the truth, and the plan.

Reader Discussion

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on November 08, 2012 at 12:42:28 pm

Originally, the idea of equality emerged as equality of souls before God and did NOT, until at least the late eighteenth century, imply that all people must have equal legal and political rights.

The effort of Locke, Mill, and Rousseau primarily consisted of transposing the Christian egalitarian ideal into a secular world. For liberal thinkers, equality never meant identity; to assert that all men are equal, meant that all men should be treated fairly.

However, slowly but surely, liberals maintained that liberalism must also strive to make 'equality of opportunity' accessible to everybody.

The craving for equality can become so pervasive that it can totally obscure the love of liberty. As soon as the prospect of legal equality appeared as a viable reality in political thinking, it came under fire from those who thought of it as insufficient!

Thus, instead of bringing people together, the liberal definition of equality, managed to create a social rift, and set the stage for attacks by socialists: when equality is limited to the constitutional and legal sphere, serious economic inequalities are bound to persist.

From its beginning, the fundamental problem with liberalism is its self-contradictory attitude towards equality: once it is proclaimed in the legal and political field, equality MUST run its full course in all other fields, including the field of economics!

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Gilbert De Bruycker
on November 09, 2012 at 10:21:04 am

I cannot match your brilliant reply, but wish only to thank you for it.

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János Ispán
on November 09, 2012 at 10:30:00 am

As has been pointed out, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan (Peace Be Upon Them) were running against President Santa Claus. Given this, it's amazing they got as far as they did.

The problem for President Santa Claus, though, is that he's rapidly running out of presents to hand out and his elves are getting restless and starting to demand their own pieces of the gift action.

And when President Santa either ignores his elves' demands or starts asking for International Brotherhood of Elves union givebacks, it's going to get really ugly, really quick.

Pass the caramel popcorn, please!

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on November 09, 2012 at 10:37:03 am

So how is this communicated to the masses to move those critical voting blocs in the next election cycle? Breitbart is dead and the current conservative "elites" have basically failed to move the needle. We have clearly given up the media, universities, and the entertainment industry, i.e. the popular culture. Not sure Fox, Rush and Hannity, God bless their efforts, are going to move us beyond preaching to the choir. I have read many articles lately explainging what happened. I'm more interested in what the smart people plan to do to fix it. I'm in business, we deal with results not theories. So, how is this "explanation of the truth" going to happen in a reality TV culture?

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on November 09, 2012 at 10:50:59 am

How much sense does this professor make? Very little.

This is an example of muddled thinking, of having cake and eating it too... Of appearing erudite and intelligent, while having no core beliefs... like whether the Big Government Party is right or whether the other party is supposed to be the Limited Government Party.

That so many words are wasted by cogitating on how intelligent it appears to not make a decision between life and liberty (Limited Government) or decline and hidden-mental enslavement (Big Government)... is just plain weird.

Once again the distinction between true Republican principles (Limited Gov.t') and Democratic principles (Unlimited, Big Gov't.) are erased. It's like this professor is saying it is 1968 and GM makes a smoggy, straight six-cylindar motor, and Ford makes a smoggy, straight six-cylindar motor (Chrysler made one too!) and therefore all is sameness, and there is no relief from smog.

But we all know that by 2012 engines had improved dramatically, whether or not some minds were fixated on how same everything appeared. This fixation with sameness is something weird.

No true conservatives were defending the Bush social policies... but, who can defend against this kind of weird cogitating?

Look to professor Larry P. Arnn for straight talk.

This article seems like simple OverLording by Right-Lip Bell Curve folk who control the middle, under-taught folk... while ignoring the truly smart folk (like Larry Arnn) on the far right flat line of the Intelligence Bell Curve.

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Robert Winkler Burke
on November 09, 2012 at 11:59:26 am

Bah. What you offer is mere Caesarism. The Big Idea to Really Change Things. No doubt promulgated by the Strong Man, who will ride over all these squabbling factions and make the damn trains run on time. Democracy is broken -- well, at least bent, and we need just a short period of slightly undemocratic leadership to put the ship to rights...

Where have we heard this before?

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Carl Pham
on November 09, 2012 at 12:00:30 pm

The new face of the party is Elizabeth Warren et al—brutal, ruthless hacks from Harvard.

... like Mitt Romney... Harvard JD/MBA. LOL!

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on November 09, 2012 at 12:04:49 pm

There is a third way. As my friend from work who voted for Obama told me Tuesday night when I asked him what we are going to do about the $16 trillion dollar debt. He said and I quote "nothing, we never have and no one cares, that will just go away." There are no adults left and I have now moved from neocon to taker, before all the money is gone and I look the sucker.

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on November 09, 2012 at 14:17:07 pm

Yuval Levin has a fine piece in National Review Online, which includes:

"The Democratic Party is mostly an incoherent amalgam of interest groups, most of which are vying for benefits for themselves and their members at the expense of other Americans. This kind of party is why America’s founders worried about partisanship and were, at least at first, eager to avoid a party system. It is a bunch of factions more than a party. The basic distinction between a faction and a proper party—a distinction proposed by Edmund Burke, among the first positive proponents of parties in the Anglo-American tradition—is that a faction seeks power over the whole for its own advantage while a party seeks power to advance its own vision of the good of the whole. “A party,” Burke wrote, “is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavor the national interest upon some principle in which they are all agreed.”

"Some of today’s Democrats do advance such a view of the good of the whole—a progressive view by which the national interest is served by replacing traditional mediating institutions with the more rational and technocratic public institutions of the welfare state, replacing what they take to be a stifling combination of moral collectivism and economic individualism with what they take to be a liberating combination of moral individualism and economic collectivism. It is this view that conservatives call “the Left” and which we oppose and resist. But the Democrats are not united by this view and are by no means all agreed in it. The party’s electoral strength is not a function of its commitment to this view or of the public’s acceptance of it. Its electoral strength is a function of a coalition of special-interest groups that provide both voters and activists in return for the party protecting their interests at the expense of those of other Americans when it is in power."

"The Republican Party has its own interest groups too, of course. It has often been too protective of big business, above all. But interest groups of this sort in Republican politics play nothing like the role they have in Democratic politics. The Republican Party, for good and bad, is much more of a real party—largely united and moved (and increasingly so) by a complicated and often contradictory but at bottom very coherent worldview we call conservatism which, to vastly overgeneralize, argues for traditional morality, free enterprise, and a robust national defense. The party’s electoral strength is without question a function of this view and of the public’s acceptance of it (or lack thereof). Its electoral fate therefore depends on its ability to lay out this vision of American life (at least in part translated into concrete policy) for voters in an appealing way and to persuade them of its virtues and its value to them and their country."

RTWT - http://www.nationalreview.com/blogs/print/333010

JVDeLong is the author of "Ending 'Big SIS' (The Special Interest State) and Renewing the American Republic" www.SpecialInterestState.org

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on November 09, 2012 at 15:02:58 pm

Thank you, sir, for expressing this so much better than I ever could. I never even realized that I was a Conservative until Bush's 2nd term. I didn't become politically active until Obamacare when I joined a local Tea Party-like group. The author, like other members of the smart set, like to pretend we don't exist or that we're in it to protect our own benefits so they can justify their own moral equivalence or perhaps their hollow core. But we do exist and we'll keep fighting with whatever tools we have because that's what Americans do - God Bless America!

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on November 09, 2012 at 16:32:29 pm

"once it is proclaimed in the legal and political field, equality MUST run its full course in all other fields, including the field of economics"

Once constitutional equality was garnered, liberals quickly moved on to equality of results--which also happened to nicely coincide with improving their political party's fortunes. Via a jujitsu move of amazing audacity, Democrats inverted their political opposition to civil rights and managed to tar Republicans with their sins. Proclaiming themselves the new, bestest buddies of all the downtrodden, it was a short jaunt to setting up their new victim constituents as a permanent voting block. The quid pro quo has always been clear: get out the vote (living, dead, jailed, duplicate, or otherwise) in return for just enough goodies to keep dependency alive.

Quite brilliant, all in all, except for one small thing: it is in the process of destroying the country both fiscally and culturally.

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PD Quig
on November 09, 2012 at 18:54:46 pm

I must take issue with on one point:
Romney/Ryan's argument was, in effect, exactly what you stated: "The country is broke, and the entilement systemmust be fixed or it WILL RUN OUT OF MONEY, and grandma will be out in the cold, But we have a plan to fix it. "

I was certainly inspired by their message, and I along with close to half of the country, I beleive, had confidence that they were the best people to get us out of this mess.

I would like to add also that I believe Romney was the best GOP presidential candidate since Reagan - towards the end he really did inspire confidence in a large part of the electorate. Unfortunately it wasn't enough.

In the end I beleive there were two critical issues that caused Romney to lose the election:
1. Since the days of FDR, the GOP has suffered from the stereotype of rich, white, war-mongering, money-grubbing Robber Barons, while the Democrats have nurtured the stereotype of the party of the 'common man'. While in reality these roles have amost completely reversed over the last 30 years, sterotypes die hard. And Obama very effectively used this to his advantage.
Also, it seems like mush of the country is living in a 1930's mindset: "we are poor, we are suffering, and the rich are to blame. And we look to the great savior for sustinencs" (FDR then, Obama now).

2. It is clear from the election results that Obama had a far superior ground game. This is something that the Democrats in general have exceeded at for a long time. And I think the GOP needs to at least match them in this area if they want to be successful.

Don Kennedy

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Donald Kennedy
on November 11, 2012 at 13:22:11 pm

Someone asked recently if the Republican party should just drop the social issues and leave them be since no one seems to care about them. I said, yes, absolutely. In national elections, no mention should be made of issues near and dear the hearts of social-cons and the only response to questions should be, "That is an issue for the states." And then point out that dealing with social issues is what has bankrupted us and turned us into a near-police state. And then try explaining federalism to all of the very ignorant people created by the public schools which have simply gotten worse and worse and demonstrably worse since the federable gummint got involved.

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on November 11, 2012 at 21:32:50 pm

We just had a campaign in which the candidate held very mild pro-life views and backed away from them whenever he was challenged. So I think we've already tried that.

Maybe it's time for the factions in the Republican Party to do something daring: leave it. The political marketplace might just lead us all into some new alliances.

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on November 11, 2012 at 21:52:00 pm

Its not equality of opportunity that's the problem, its legislating equal outcomes.

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on November 11, 2012 at 22:56:03 pm

A slight rebuttal to #1, if I may. TARP, GM, Republican concerns about sequestration soley focused on the military-industrial complex, the farm bills and transport bills laden with pork, the initial push back against earmarking.
A few current events that the middle class tags Republicans yet still with the tag of party of the rich.
Money talks and the Republican party is funded by crony capitalists. They talks the talk very well because they're so close to it and they throw rhetorical bones to socons when its convenient and harmless.

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Mike Mahoney
on November 23, 2012 at 11:30:44 am

But, President Santa Claus, being able to rally all of those to whom he is giving gifts, with the war cry of "Those rich heartless individuals won't let you have what you so rightfully deserve. It's racism," will have his way at our expense. Broke or not, we're screwed.

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