May 21, 2008


A Theme for McCain's Pudding: Here's how to tie together the campaign's assortment of ideas: a reform agenda for the 21st century. (Yuval Levin, 05/26/2008, Weekly Standard)

A successful McCain campaign would begin with noting what is wrong with the Democrats' main theme: change. In an election year marked by a vague but pervasive sense of anxiety among voters, there is something ironic about the Democratic mantra. Change, after all, is exactly what Americans have been experiencing over the last several decades: changes in the American and the global economy; changes in social and family structure; changes and advances in the technologies of medicine, communication, transportation, and information processing; changes in just about every facet of our lives. Many have been welcome, but all have brought with them unease, especially as they have outpaced the ability of our large public institutions to adapt. Lurking beneath the individual concerns and anxieties that voters express to pollsters is a broad crisis of confidence, grounded in apprehension about the escalating failures of these institutions, from the intelligence community and giant Wall Street banks, to entitlement programs, the immigration system, and beyond.

Many of our public institutions arose to meet the demands of the 20th century. The growth of complex financial markets brought about the Federal Reserve and an evolving regime of financial regulation. The emergence of powerful new technologies brought about agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, to ensure their safe use. The expenses of longer and healthier lives led to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and to a complicated system of employer-based health insurance. The demands of two world wars and a long cold war brought about an integrated American military and a slew of intelligence agencies. And the challenges of managing and regulating all of this led to vast new institutions of governance: from the career federal bureaucracy and the absurdly complex tax code to the modern federal budget process.

These institutions have always had critics, but in recent years the old debates have begun to seem outdated as the circumstances from which they emerged have changed dramatically and the institutions begun to show signs of serious decay. Grave institutional failures have been behind some of the prominent problems of the Bush years. The systemic sclerosis of the intelligence community led American leaders to underestimate al Qaeda's ambitions and to overestimate Iraq's weapons programs. A disorganized domestic response apparatus revealed itself after September 11 and again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. An overly rigid military (particularly the Army) designed for the Cold War found it difficult to adapt after early setbacks in Iraq and has even resisted a new and winning strategy more recently.

A health care financing system built for the mid-20th-century American economy has been showing strain for decades--just about everyone now agrees it needs a serious redesign. Old-age entitlements designed for a very different population are threatening to go bankrupt and take the federal government right with them. A legal immigration system enacted four decades ago is far out of touch with contemporary needs, while illegal immigration proceeds at a staggering pace.

Regulatory institutions have not fared better, and in just the past several months, we have seen embarrassing breakdowns at the FAA, signs of severe overextension at the FDA, failures of basic oversight in the nation's financial regulatory system, and new causes to worry about the readiness of the Federal Reserve to contend with unexpected events. Similar signs of trouble are everywhere. Individually, each of these may be dismissed as a modest problem, of the sort that is always popping up somewhere. But seen together, as they are arriving together, these signs point to a decay that may be the governing problem of the moment. [...]

The right is well suited to the task of such reform. The overarching lesson of our failing institutions is not that government has failed to reach far enough into American society, but that life in the 21st century is more complex and less predictable than our 20th-century institutions can readily fathom. The answer is not to expand government so it can rescue people from themselves--which is the underlying premise behind just about every plank of Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's platforms--but to make the institutions dynamic and flexible enough to advance the causes of economic growth, cultural vitality, and national security.

"A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve" was Edmund Burke's definition of the statesman two centuries ago, and it remains the hallmark of conservatism. While American conservatives have sometimes liked to think of themselves as revolutionaries (or radical counter-revolutionaries), the most significant accomplishments of the conservative movement have actually been targeted reforms that turned existing institutions to conservative ends. The Reagan "revolution" gave us a tax code better suited to entrepreneurship and growth. The Gingrich "revolution" gave us a welfare system with incentives geared toward encouraging independence and initiative. Conservative reform of urban law enforcement, and early efforts at reform of local education (through school choice), have improved what we have, rather than rejecting it. Reform, not revolution, is the conservative path to supporting strong families and free markets.

A reform agenda would be especially well suited to John McCain, as he himself seemed to see in 1999. McCain's conservatism is not fundamentally ideological. He is not especially interested in political "issues" or in abstract ideas about individual rights or the role of government. Rather, he is moved by large challenges and great exertions, and by the imperative of meeting America's commitments. He is a conservative because he believes the right has a more responsible attitude toward meeting these commitments, and is more likely to keep Americans (as individuals and as a nation) strong enough to do great things.

This makes for an awkward marriage between McCain and the conservative movement, but it is a coupling with more opportunities for joint efforts than the two sides realize. Rather than pretend McCain is a traditional movement conservative or that conservatism is a nonideological honor code, the two should seize an opportunity to work together for their rather different ends, with McCain giving voice to the aims and the urgency of reforms, and conservatives offering him the means. They should seek to reform our governing institutions in ways that would turn them to the cause of America's working families (which are the source of America's strengths), and should understand that cause in terms of upwardly mobile aspiration, not bitter and angry desperation.

McCain should paint a picture for the public of the moment we are in: confronted on the one hand with a justified crisis of confidence in our institutions and on the other with proposals from the Democrats driven by a set of liberal ideological commitments that would exacerbate the problem by carelessly expanding government. The cure for what ails us is not change that is simply more of the same--more bureaucracy, a further takeover of the private and domestic spheres that in the name of offering relief steals away more and more of our independence and initiative. The cure, rather, is to plant in the architecture of our largest public institutions the conservative commitments to individual freedom and initiative, to the centrality of parenthood and the family, and to the cause of American strength in the world.


A McCain reform agenda would begin with an effort to help give American families more say over the institutions they rely on most directly.

America's health care system is a product of 20th-century labor policies, and it is struggling to keep up with 21st-century medicine. It puts too many incentives in the wrong places and creates needless uncertainties and tensions. The care is not itself a problem: It is for the most part advanced, high quality medicine, and those with access to it are very happy with it. The problem is that access to insurance coverage is a function of a tax policy grounded in World War II-era employment laws. Many Americans in our modern economy no longer fit the model--not because they are oppressed or put upon, but because they are pursuing prosperity in different ways. Small business employees, the self-employed, freelancers, and those who change jobs frequently find themselves at constant risk of losing health coverage.

The answer is not a program of government subsidies that slowly drives consumers into public insurance--which is what Senators Clinton and Obama propose--and which would create an even less responsive system than the one we now have. (This would replace a slowly decaying 20th-century model with an essentially bankrupt 20th-century model.) The answer is, rather, to treat individuals as individuals, create incentives for cost containment in the private sector, and help the uninsured find private coverage. [...]

Obviously such an immense reform agenda could not be accomplished by any single president, and particularly not in the exceedingly difficult political circumstances McCain would likely face if he won in November. But by advancing an ambitious agenda--one that if anything is too heavy on specifics--McCain could provide a sensible and coherent explanation for the generalized anxiety of the American public today and a road map toward addressing it head on.

McCain would also be providing conservatives with a new way of thinking about the challenges they confront as a governing party rather than a counterrevolutionary one and a new vocabulary for making the case for limited-but-effective government, for freedom and individual responsibility, and for American values.

New? It's just Compassionate Conservatism/New Democrat/New Labour/Thatcherism, but it is the basis for winning elections throughout the Anglosphere over the past several decades. It is also why he could really use Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels, who can provide Third Way cred and articulate the remains of W's agenda.

Democrats for School Choice (Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2008)

When Florida passed a law in 2001 creating the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program for underprivileged students, all but one Democrat in the state legislature voted against it. Earlier this month, lawmakers extended the program – this time with the help of a full third of Democrats in the Legislature, including 13 of 25 members of the state's black caucus and every member of the Hispanic caucus. What changed?

Our guess is that low-income parents in Florida have gotten a taste of the same school choice privileges that middle- and upper-income families have always enjoyed. And they've found they like this new educational freedom. Under the scholarship program, which is means-tested, companies get a 100% tax credit for donations to state-approved nonprofits that provide private-school vouchers for low-income families.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 21, 2008 7:37 AM
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