If Maggie Gallagher's syndicated columns do not appear in your local paper, I recommend that you sample a few of them at uexpress.com. You will like what you find. She is very good, an unabashed cultural conservative who fights the good fight on issues such as pornography, same-sex marriage and assisted suicide. She stood by Terri Schiavo's parents to the end.
In a recent column, she explored a phenomenon that has intrigued me for the last few years: the fate of the Reagan coalition. Something is going on. How could the same country that elected Reagan in landslides elect Bill Clinton?
Gallagher's answer is that it is not the same country. "The Reagan coalition is dead," she writes. This reality sank home for her after attending National Review Institute's Conservative Summit in Washington, D.C. in mid January. A debate between Ralph Reed and what she calls a "libertarian whippersnapper," on whether religious conservatives have too much influence in the Republican party, underscored the point for her. Reed and the whippersnapper had little to unite them. I get the same reaction when watching the television commentators identified as the country's leading conservatives. It is hard for me to figure out what Pat Buchanan and Charles Krauthammer have in common.
No question, the war in Iraq is responsible for much of this disarray. But not all of it. Gallagher focuses on the debate over the role of the central government in our lives. She contends that this battle, once central to the conservative cause, is lost: "Dems' efforts to pass minimum wages increases and oppose the privatization of Social Security are very popular. This is the real elephant in the room that no conservative is allowed to notice." She adds, "I don't say this with pleasure: I have both opposed increasing the minimum wage and supported personalizing Social Security. But if you can't notice political realities, you aren't in a very good position to figure out new strategies for victory of the principles you held dear."
I say Gallagher is right. Intellectually, I agree with Steve Forbes on privatizing Social Security and Walter Williams on minimum wage laws. The numbers and the pie charts are on their side. But whenever I get into discussions of these issues with anyone who is not a movement conservative, I get nowhere. Most of the people I talk to will have none of what Forbes and Williams have to say, even those who are doing well financially. Modern Americans want the central government "to help the people." Reagan was able to appeal to the voters by leading the charge to "get the government out of our lives." It has been my experience that this message no longer sells.
Why not? I think it can be explained by something comparable to the weakness of Keynesian economics that you learn about in Economics 101, even if your professor is an ardent Keynesian. Keynes, you will recall, argued that the central government should deliberately incur deficits by lowering taxes and increasing government spending during economic downturns. He was confident that doing this would stimulate the economy sufficiently to bring back growth. The people would have more money to spend because of the tax cuts, as would all the workers hired to build the bridges and tunnels and military equipment with federal dollars.
What about the deficits caused by increasing spending and cutting taxes at the same time? Keynes argued that once the economy began to grow, especially if inflation reared its head, the government could reverse course: cut spending and raise taxes. Voila! More money would flow into the federal coffers because of the higher taxes; less money would flow out because of the cut-back in federal spending. The deficit goes away. And we all live happily ever after.
Why doesn't that happen — at least routinely? (We did run surpluses during the Clinton years, whether or not you want to credit Clinton and his team for that fact.) Because of the phenomenon Gallagher notes in her column. Modern Americans want the central government to "do things" for them. This is why Keynes' defenders have long conceded that it is difficult to apply his theories during periods of economic expansion; that raising taxes and cutting government spending at the same time is a hard-sell to the masses, regardless of how much sense it makes in theory.
To get the point, picture someone like Ted Kennedy running for office against a politician who is committed to Keynes' theories. Let's say it is a time of economic expansion and thus the time to raise taxes and cut spending in order to get the budget surpluses needed to pay off the deficits incurred when the government cut taxes and increased spending to stimulate the economy.
You know what would happen. Kennedy would get red-faced and growl in high dudgeon: "You heard my opponent! You heard him! I'll quote him directly! He wants to raise your taxes and cut essential government programs! Would you shop in a butcher shop that raised your prices and gave you less bologna? Then why vote for a man who is going to charge you more for doing less! It is as absurd as it sounds!"
Picture his Keynesian opponent. He tries to settle an audience confronting him with what Kennedy has said. "Wait…wait… All I am calling for is a surplus to pay off the deficits that were incurred five years ago when we were stimulating the economy. Remember? That was the deal. We cut taxes and increased government spending temporarily back then to spur the economy and now…."
Angry voices rise from the crowd. "We don't want any double-talk! Answer the question! Do you want to increase our taxes and cut government programs if you get elected? Yes or no!"
"Well, yes I do," our Keynesian responds. "But, please, look at this bar graph illustrating the need for a budget surplus in a time such as this for the long-range health of the economy. It is a matter of simple economics, a way of balancing…." He is drowned out by the angry moans, exasperated sighs and the sound of feet heading for the door: "Did you hear that guy? He wants to charge us more for doing less for people like us, who work hard and play by the rules. Give me a break."
Our imaginary Keynesian pol's goose is cooked. The election is over. And so, I'm afraid, is the conservative call for limited government. A politician these days may be able to make hay by calling for an end to waste and corruption in federal programs. But a cut-back on things like Social Security, Medicare and student loans? I don't like to say it, but those days are over, especially now that the baby boomers are reaching retirement age. They don't want the central government to "get out of the way." They want it to expand their benefits. The Reagan coalition is not going to stand successfully against that tidal wave.
Bill Clinton is remembered for proclaiming that "the era of big government is over." It was part of his "triangulation" ploy to woo conservative voters. It looks as if he was wrong, even if the dodge helped him at the polls. The pendulum may move back toward more limited government, but I suspect it won't be soon. Fasten your seat belt.