By JAMES TARANTO
TAMPA, Fla.–Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter thinks Paul Ryan will be president one day. Alter told us so at a late-afternoon reception at a downtown Tampa hotel sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. He also said that Ryan isn’t really a “deficit hawk” but a “small-government conservative.” To Alter, that was a criticism. To us, it is a recommendation. That disagreement is a synecdoche for the Obama-era political and ideological divide.
“What’s the difference?” asked another journalist, a British one, when we recounted the conversation later, after Ryan’s convention speech. After all, Ryan did say: “In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time.” He is concerned about the debt, and he has plenty of reason to be
But a mere deficit hawk wouldn’t have said this: “None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers, a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” A deficit hawk is averse, above all, to debt; a small-government conservative, to coercion. A deficit hawk doesn’t mind big government, as long as it’s paid for with high taxes.
Deficit hawkishness was the main strain of postwar Republican conservatism until the Goldwater movement of 1964. When lefties long for the “mainstream” Republicans of yore, this is a large part of what they have in mind. A conservatism that cares only about balancing the books not only fails to challenge the encroachment of the welfare state but actively aids it by taking political pressure off the left.
Here’s how politics would work in a world in which deficit hawks dominated the Republican Party: The Democrats would propose a new entitlement. Some Republicans would oppose it, but once it was clear it was going to pass, they would drop their opposition and push for tax increases instead.
It’s a win-win for the Democratic left. They not only fulfill their ideological goal of ever-expanding government, but they get the political credit for doling out benefits and they shift the blame to Republicans (or at least share it with them) for the concomitant tax increases. Conservatives are reduced, to paraphrase Newt Gingrich, to acting as tax collectors for the welfare state. With Republican cooperation, Democrats can be the party of generous benefits and low taxes. Lyndon B. Johnson dramatically expanded the former while reducing the latter.
Once small-government conservatism becomes a serious force in politics–as it did within the Republican Party after 1964 and in the country as a whole with Ronald Reagan’s ascension–that system breaks down. Democrats lose elections as the party of high taxes (Walter Mondale), or they attenuate their ideological ambitions (Bill Clinton), or they risk a debt crisis (Barack Obama). In any case, the growth of the welfare state is no longer easy or smooth.
Small-government conservatism has its pitfalls as well. As Reagan found, it’s a lot easier politically to cut taxes than spending. Result: debt. In the post-Reagan years, small-government conservatism receded within the Republican Party. George H.W. Bush ran as a small-government Reaganite (“Read my lips”), but, under pressure from congressional Democrats, governed as a deficit hawk. Later, when Republicans controlled Congress, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush governed more or less in the LBJ mold, expanding entitlements (albeit incrementally) while reducing taxes.
The resurgence of small-government conservatism, personified by Paul Ryan, owes a lot to Obama, who came to office bent on “fundamentally transforming” America–i.e., on quickly and vastly expanding the welfare state. He apparently expected this to be easy, as everything else in his life has been, but even he didn’t dare call for tax increases, except on “the rich.