Will GOP really take on Big Government -- and Obama's straw-man attacks?

The problem for Republicans after Tuesday’s election is that Americans are opposed to Big Government, but only at a high level of abstraction. Translating that general sentiment into specific program cuts that are popular, or even tolerated, is the hard part.

Oscar Wilde said that there are two kinds of tragic stories. One is about people who don’t get what they want, and the other is about people who do.

In November 2008 liberals got what they wanted, the clearest signal since 1964 that the nation’s voters were prepared to offer reliable, durable majorities to the advocates and practitioners of activist government.

In his post-election cover story for Time magazine, titled “The New Liberal Order,” Peter Beinart argued that Barack Obama had “an excellent chance” to establish “an era of liberal hegemony” because “taking aggressive action to stimulate the economy, regulate the financial industry and shore up the American welfare state won’t divide his political coalition; it will divide the other side.”

This week, conservatives got what they wanted, a firm declaration by the electorate that transforming our country into a European social democracy is an offer we can refuse. The question is whether sometime in 2011 the more numerous Capitol Hill Republicans are going to make some missteps, suffer some setbacks, and find themselves reading articles, as Democrats have been for the past year, about how they “over-interpreted their mandate.”

Overwhelming victories in American presidential elections, and congressional majorities that endured for decades, used to be common. During the past 20 years, however, the presidential elections have all been closer and the congressional majorities more tenuous.

Neither side can gain a lasting advantage

In this long game, played between the 40-yard lines, neither team can gain a clear, lasting advantage. Things have been so closely divided that some of the major achievements associated with one president seem like they were copied from the other party’s platform.

Bill Clinton secured passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and signed the 1996 welfare reform bill, for example, and then George W. Bush added prescription drug coverage to Medicare and dramatically increased federal aid to education through No Child Left Behind.

The problem for Republicans after Tuesday’s election is that Americans are opposed to Big Government, but only at a high level of abstraction. Translating that general sentiment into specific program cuts that are popular, or even tolerated, is the hard part.

Time for adult talk on entitlements

If the GOP launches a new assault on Fort Entitlement – the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs that are on track to bankrupt America – the slender hopes for a more successful outcome than in the past rest on two considerations: First, the emergence of Republican leaders like Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who treat fiscal restraint not as one of the things they would like to accomplish, but as The Thing they are determined to accomplish. Messrs. Daniels and Christie speak as adults to adults when discussing taxes and spending with their constituents, and there is abundant evidence that those constituents respond favorably to politicians who acquit themselves with that kind of respect and candor.

Second, federal budget deficits, of unprecedented size and duration, have concentrated the public’s mind. America as a whole faces non-negotiable fiscal limits like the ones that have come to dominate politics in cash-strapped states – or overseas in countries like Greece and Britain.

Daniels and Christie did not let their states’ fiscal crises go to waste, and congressional Republicans will and should try to eliminate funding for public broadcasting, AMTRAK, and the other boondoggles the Gingrich Republicans tried and failed to defund.

As for the Democrats, they face the problem that a clear majority of Americans opposes Big Government not only in the abstract, but also each new concrete instance of it enacted in the past two years, such as the stimulus bill, the auto and bank bailouts, and health-care reform.

A new period of triangulation?

Bill Clinton spent the final six of his eight years in the White House confronting Republican majorities in the House and Senate. In addition to presiding over an increasingly vigorous economy, Clinton had a gift for “triangulating,” as commentators said at the time – fashioning policy positions that set him apart from less popular ones taken by both his party and the GOP.

This political approach came naturally to Clinton. He routinely denounced “false dichotomies,” to the point where it became hard to be sure that he acknowledged the existence of true dichotomies.

Mr. Obama’s “triangulation,” by contrast, has been almost entirely concerned with political procedure – you might even say manners. The importance of getting beyond partisanship has been a recurring motif of Obama’s career as a national political figure, ever since his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic convention, which stressed that what unites us as Americans is more important than what divides the red and blue states.

The problem is that Republicans haven’t been mollified, and swing voters haven’t been impressed, by an approach to bi- or post- or trans-partisanship that has seen Obama repeatedly call for toning down the political rhetoric, while also availing himself of straw-man arguments against conservatives.

Obama's favorite target: the straw man

In his first presidential news conference he said of people who opposed his stimulus bill, “There seems to be a set of folks who – I don’t doubt their sincerity – who just believe that we should do nothing.” Similarly, in 2010 the president said at the University of Michigan, “What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad.” The “folks” or “people” who take these extraordinary positions are never named.

The apotheosis of this attempt to have it both ways was the summit on health care with congressional Democrats and Republicans. What was striking about that made-for-TV special was that Obama not only insisted on acting as both the referee and the captain of the blue team, but seemed genuinely affronted that anyone on the red team would find this arrangement objectionable.

One of the big questions for the next two years is whether Obama, confronting a larger, more determined Republican opposition, can make bipartisanship substantive rather than just tonal. If he can’t, the question is whether he can frame the resulting gridlock in a way that makes the next tragic story one about the Republicans rather than the Democrats in 2012.

William Voegeli, the author of "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State," is a contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books.

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