In the Arena

The Era of Ozio

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Charles Krauthammer, who can, on occasion, be an intellectually honest conservative, is increasingly lured into bilious nonsense when discussing politics, as he was in his weekly Washington Post column published Friday. It was a brief against people (like me) who have expressed disappointment in recent weeks over the public’s unwillingness to confront the issues facing us–and the ability of right-wingers to mislead through demagoguery. Jacob Weisberg has similar feelings¬†here, in Slate this week.

For years–maybe twenty years–I’ve expressed concern about a deficit in citizenship, during Democratic and Republican Administrations alike. I named a character in Primary Colors after the phenomenon: Orlando Ozio. Machiavelli once said that Ozio [indolence] is the greatest enemy of a Republic. My feeling has been that in the Era of Ozio–the peace and prosperity that set in after World War II and lasted until the turn of this century–we lost the habits of citizenship, largely because there was no great need to remain interested in public policies, especially on the domestic side (obviously, overseas travesties like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and social issues like abortion and homosexuality, were exceptions to the prevailing apathy). But as for basic management of the economy, things were going pretty well–in the short term. There was no great cause for people to follow public affairs closely.

For much of this period, concern about public fecklessness was an essentially conservative argument: How do you deal with a public that wants lower taxes and more services? The discussion of this problem was conducted well within the bounds of reason during the Reagan years: Liberals, like Walter Mondale, said you raised taxes to correct the imbalance. Conservatives like Reagan, at first, said that you curtailed services. But the public wanted neither. Reagan found it impossible to curtail the welfare. Liberals often engaged in demagoguery when conservatives proposed necessary cuts in entitlement programs, but the left remained, in essence, intellectually honest: you needed to raise taxes to correct the imbalance. (Republicans got good mileage from battering liberals over that.) But Bill Clinton successfully raised taxes, the budget was balanced and–despite conservative cries that a tax increase would throw the economy into recession–the economy boomed. (Clinton also represented a creative, underappreciated effort to split the difference between liberals and conservatives, making government services more efficient by introducing market principles like increased competition.)

Conservatives have been less intellectually honest. They indulged the public’s desire for tax cuts–concocting a ridiculous theory, “supply side economics,” to provide an intellectual ¬†rationale–and made no serious effort to curtail spending (at least, not since George H.W. Bush’s Administration). Bush the Younger’s budgeting was a complete exercise in cynicism. He lowered taxes vehemently and the result was the same as the Reagan tax cuts–the budget deficit leaped (unlike Reagan, however, Bush would not raise taxes to make up for his mistake). Bush compounded this irresponsibility by refusing to fund his wars, or even to include them in the regular budgeting process, thereby camouflaging the real size of the deficits he was running. And in one of the most perverse moments in American history, Bush behaved precisely as conservatives always accused liberals of behaving: he pushed through an enormous new entitlement–drug benefits for senior citizens–without paying for it. I’m told this unfunded entitlement will cost $7 trillion over the course of this century.

Which brings us back to Krauthammer–and this moment. The Obama Administration faced two opposite, if unequal, problems in 2009. It faced a possible economic collapse. It faced a long-term deficit crisis, a combination of Bush’s profligacy and the imminent retirement of the baby boomers. The Administration, wisely, chose to deal with the immediate crisis: it continued the bank bailout policy launched by the Bush Administration and passed a $787 billion stimulus program. Neither of these policies were disputed by the vast majority of economists–although some on the left wanted more action, a takeover of the banks, a larger stimulus; and a few Libertarians on the right wanted to let the big banks fail and opposed any stimulus at all.

Now, there was an intellectually honest course for conservatives to take on the stimulus–and some did: they could argue for a more efficient and responsible plan. They could have argued–and some did–that instead of distributing $288 billion to the middle class, the money could all have gone to small businesses and manufacturers in the form of a capital gains tax holiday, investment credits, especially credits for hiring new employees. They could have argued that the infrastructure projects be routed through a National Infrastructure Bank, limiting the influence of the pork-dispensers on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses, making sure that money went to the most worthy projects. They could have argued for more good-government strings attached to the money going to the states. These are the sort of arguments that conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, have made in the past. You can agree or disagree with them, but they are serious, with solid intellectual rationales. By actually engaging the President on these issues, they could have negotiated a package more amenable to their needs. That’s what happens in a democracy (and it happened, to a certain, extent in the Senate).

Some Republicans made that effort, but most did not. Most slid into line behind the know-nothing populism of the Tea Party movement…and the bilge being peddled on Fox News and Boss Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. And so when Krauthammer argues this:

That brings us to Part 2 of the liberal conceit: Liberals act in the public interest, while conservatives think only of power, elections, self-aggrandizement and self-interest…This belief in the moral hollowness of conservatism animates the current liberal mantra that Republican opposition to Obama’s social democratic agenda — which couldn’t get through even a Democratic Congress and powered major Democratic losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts — is nothing but blind and cynical obstructionism.

he is playing rhetorical games. Because the Republicans haven’t been offering conservatism, they’ve been offering nihilism. True conservatives would have found a way to either negotiate the Democratic proposals or made intellectually honest arguments against them. Instead, we get death panels and cries of “socialism.” Instead, we get hypocrites like Mitch McConnell, supporting a budget-balancing commission, then refusing to vote for it. Instead, we get people like Charles Krauthammer admitting the health care system is busted–even proposing a single-payer alternative in a column last summer–and then demagoguing Obama’s efforts to forge a compromise (admittedly messy, but that’s how these things go).

The public is easily misled, as conservatives have long claimed. There is a particular responsibility now that the Era of Ozio is over and we’re enmeshed in a new era of international competition, for conservatives and liberals to try to educate the electorate, making honest intellectual arguments, about the truly vexing range of long-term challenges we face (at least, when we’re not in the midst of an election campaign). I’ve seen conservatives do it in the past. They are not doing it now…and the Obama Administration, for the most part, is.