Back in 1946, an ingenious advertising executive named Karl Frost suggested a simple, straightforward political slogan to the Massachusetts Republican Committee: “Had Enough? Vote Republican,” it read. This slogan was soon found on billboards all across the country, and in November of that year the Republicans picked up fifty-five seats in the House and twelve in the Senate, seizing control in both chambers.
By that November, the country had suffered under the New Deal for fourteen years, and Americans, understandably, were fed up. Moreover, as Michael Barone pointed out last May, “After World War II Democrats wanted to retain wartime high taxes, pro-union labor laws, and wage and price controls, all manipulatable for political benefit by political insiders. Republicans . . . won big enough majorities to lower taxes, revise labor laws and abolish controls.”
Were I in the shoes of Michael Steele, I would buy up billboard space all over the country and slap up the same slogan – for something similar should be possible this November. The healthcare debate was over some time ago. When Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January, it was made abundantly clear that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had lost that debate decisively. Now, in the face of fierce public opposition, they have jammed the bill through Congress, and they have done so without the cover of a single Republican vote. For this – as William Daley, the mastermind of the Chicago machine, warned in an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post on Christmas eve – they will pay dearly and not just this coming November.
Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” It is possible, of course, that events will intervene between now and November. It is conceivable that the healthcare bill and the manner in which it was passed in both the Senate and the House will be forgotten. But this is not likely. If the Republicans stick together, mount a principled opposition to the Obama administration on all fronts, and recruit first-rate candidates to run in every district at both the state and the federal levels in November, it is highly likely that there will be a political earthquake in this country on a scale not seen since 1932.
As I have argued now for months – first, in August, here; then, in November, here and here; and, more recently, here, here, and here – a genuine political realignment may be in the offing. This has happened at irregular intervals in our nation’s past – most notably, in 1800, 1828, 1860, and 1932 – and on each occasion the political party benefiting from the upheaval was able to paint a plausible picture depicting their opponents as being parties to a conspiracy to overthrow the liberties possessed by their fellow Americans. This is what Thomas Jefferson did to the Federalists in and after 1800; it was what Andrew Jackson did to John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Nicholas Biddle, and the Whigs in and after 1828; it was what Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans did to the slave power conspiracy and its fellow travelers in the North in and after 1860, and it was what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did to Herbert Hoover and the business-minded progressives in and after 1932. When FDR claimed, at the 1936 Democratic convention, that “a small group” of his fellow Americans was intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives,” he was merely rephrasing the charges lodged in an earlier time by Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and their political allies.
Of course, one cannot plausibly advance such a claim except in circumstances where one has a great deal of help from one’s opponents. In 1800, Jefferson profited from the quarrel pitting Alexander Hamilton against John Adams, and by exhibiting secessionist propensities at the Hartford Convention, the New England Federalists destroyed their own party. Something similar can be said regarding Nicholas Biddle and the supporters of the Second National Bank. The same is true for the supporters of the slave power in and after 1860, and Herbert Hoover was in similar fashion a godsend for FDR.
If the Republicans have a comparable opportunity in 2010 and 2012, it is because of what I described in my very first blogpost as “Obama’s Tyrannical Ambition.” Barack Obama has a gift. He has told us so himself, and he is right, but he errs in supposing that his oratorical skill will enable him to fool all of the people all of the time, and over time he has, in effect, unmasked his own party as a conspiracy on the part of a would-be aristocracy of do-gooders hostile to very idea of self-government in the United States. There is no need for me to review the record of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress in the last fifteen months. It is enough to say that, in an administration that promised transparency, everything has been negotiated behind closed doors in a manner suggestive of tyranny and that, in an administration that promised to distance itself from the lobbyists, every major bill has been written by them and is loaded with special deals that give new meaning to the old phrase “corrupt bargain.” The stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, healthcare reform: with these Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have brought home to the American people, as never before, the tyrannical propensities inherent in the progressive impulse. Thanks to them, everyone now knows that there is no such thing as a moderate Democrat.
Of course, it takes two to tango. Thus far, the Republicans have played their cards well by observing the age-old rule: When your opponents are in the process of committing suicide, stay out of the way. In the circumstances that they now face, it may be sufficient that they maintain discipline and make abundantly clear their opposition to Obama’s domestic program. Sooner or later, however, they will have to develop a positive program, and that will decide their fate. The Republican victory of 1946 was vitally important for the future of the American republic in the fashion suggested by Barone, but it was short-lived. If the Republicans are to do better this time around, they will have to make the case that the entitlement regime inherited by the Obama is as unAmerican as what he has added to it.
Put simply, it is not enough that the Republicans claim that they can administer the welfare state more effectively than the Democrats. As FDR and Truman demonstrated, business progressivism is not, in the long run, a politically viable alternative to government-centered progressivism. For a realignment to take place, there has to be a return to first principles – to the principles of limited government embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Fortunately, the welfare state that we have inherited is visibly bankrupt in more than one way. Medicare in its current form is unsustainable; Social Security is no longer viable. The cohort of retirees is growing ever larger, and they live on and on. The cohort of those within the work force is not growing at a faster rate. Taxes can perhaps be raised but if they are raised too much they will choke off investment, get in the way of economic growth, cease to bring in the revenue requisite for supporting our entitlement programs.
In short, we have no choice. One way or another, there will be entitlement reform. If the Republicans come up with a viable plan – and Paul Ryan may have done just that – and if they implement it, the future may well be theirs. If they do not, what they gain this November, even if they gain the Presidency two years thereafter, will not long endure. The real question before us is simple. Do the Republicans have the moxie to seize this opportunity and turn the country around? Do they understand the principles of limited government? Can they articulate them in such a way as to bring home to the voters the nature and value of the liberties they have lost with the onset of the administrative state? With the help of Barack Obama, they have an opportunity now that last had its equal in 1946. What they have to remember are Lincoln ‘s words: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”