In the Arena

Policy v. Power

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David Broder has a very strange column today, praising a paper by the conservative scholar William Schambra in which the author criticizes Barack Obama for being interested in…policy. This is something I’ve noticed over the past twenty years: the Republicans–some of whom used to give a good faith effort to figuring out how best to govern–have lost all interest in policy. They care about power, and are willing to do just about anything to retain or gain it.

The argument against policy is that it’s…just…too…hard. Presidents like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama believe in the possibility of rational public responses to chronic problems like health care or climate change. Their dreams are led astray by the realities of politics–lobbyists and craven pols who impose the fatally flawed as the enemy of the good. This is an argument neither new nor coherent.

For starters, this is a startling betrayal of Broder’s own lifelong devotion to policy. It is also a cheesy knock on the liberal project–the belief that government activism can improve the lives of individuals in a society, a belief that stands as one of the essential lessons of 20th century American public life. But it’s also just sloppy thinking.

Notice the visions Broder leaves out: Dwight Eisenhower and the interstate highway system; Lyndon Johnson–civil rights legislation, Medicare and Medicaid; Richard Nixon–the Environmental Protection Agency, universal health care (blocked, foolishly, by Democrats) and a host of other social programs. Ronald Reagan–tax reform and simplification; George H.W. Bush–clean air and water legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Yes, it is possible for liberals to go too utopian, to lose sight of the importance of private entrepreneuralism, to be deluded into believing that government can impose perfect justice and perfect order. But neither Clinton nor Obama–moderate liberals, at best–seem even vaguely utopian.

The real question is this: if liberals are in favor of policy solutions to chronic societal problems, what are conservatives for? The conservatives I’ve admired understand the we have a collective responsibility for our society’s welfare, but understand the limits of that responsibility. They make creative suggestions about how to bring the realities of the market–principles like competition–to public policy. (For example, the notion of an individual health care mandate rather than an employer-provided system originated in the Heritage Foundation–it is hilarious to see the nitwit Chuck Grassley deride it as liberalism gone amok now, after he supported it a few months ago.)

It’s not liberals who have an existential problem right now. It is conservatives, who believe in nothing, it seems, but winning…and winning at all costs, even at the expense of truth, civility and honor.