By David Brooks
Democrats frequently ask me why the Republicans have become so extreme. As they describe the situation, they usually fall back on some sort of illness metaphor. Republicans have a mania. President Barack Obama has said that Republicans have a “fever” that he hopes will break if he is re-elected.
I guess I’d say Republicans don’t have an illness; they have a viewpoint. Let me describe it this way: In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state. Between Ike and George W. Bush, Republican leaders basically accepted that model. Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but, in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats.
But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety”: “We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. … We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”
To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards.
America’s economic stagnation is just more gradual. In the decades after World War II, the U.S. economy grew by well over 3 percent a year, on average. But, since then, it has failed to keep pace with changing realities. The average growth was a paltry 1.7 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. It averaged 0.6 percent growth between 2009 and 2011. Wages have failed to keep up with productivity. Family net worth is back at the same level it was at 20 years ago.
In America as in Europe, Republicans argue, the welfare state is failing to provide either security or dynamism. The safety net is so expensive it won’t be there for future generations. Meanwhile, the current model shifts resources away from the innovative sectors of the economy and into the bloated state-supported ones, like health care and education. Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle.
The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly.
This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing.
Mitt Romney hasn’t put it this way. He wants to keep the focus on Mr. Obama. But this worldview is implied in his (extremely vague) proposals. He would structurally reform the health care system, moving toward a more market-based system. He would simplify the tax code. He would reverse 30 years of education policy, decentralizing power and increasing parental choice. The intention is the same, to create a model that will spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival.
Democrats have had trouble grasping the Republican diagnosis because they don’t have the same sense that the current model is collapsing around them. In his speech in Cleveland on Thursday, Mr. Obama offered an entirely different account of where we are. In the Obama version, the welfare-state model was serving America well until it was distorted a decade ago by a Republican Party intent on serving the rich and shortchanging the middle class.
In his speech, Mr. Obama didn’t vow to reform the current governing model but to rebalance it. The rich would pay a little more and everyone else would get a little more. He’d “double down” on clean energy, revive the Grand Bargain from last summer’s budget talks, invest in infrastructure, job training and basic research.
Mr. Obama championed targeted subsidies and tax credits. Republicans, meanwhile, envision comprehensive systemic change. The GOP vision is of an entirely different magnitude: Replace the tax code, replace the health care system and transform entitlements.
This is what this election is about: Is the 20th-century model obsolete, or does it just need rebalancing? Is Mr. Obama oblivious to this historical moment or are Republicans overly radical, risky and impractical?
Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions about how much change is needed. I suspect the likely collapse of the European project will profoundly influence which perception the country buys this November.