Saturday, April 23, 2011

What is the future for Republicans like Susan Collins and David Frum?

This week Susan Collins was the first Republican Senator to come out publicly against Paul Ryan's budget plan. Meanwhile, David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote a powerful defense of the welfare state.

Let's take a closer look at some of the things Frum said. First of all, he accurately states the cause of the recent economic collapse.

America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

There is something a bit jarring about hearing a Republican say that so clearly. It makes me think that many who say otherwise know better - but feel compelled to maintain the dogma.

Next Frum takes on the idea that "big government" is always bad.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

But he's prepared to temper that with a nod to some of the basics of conservative thought.

Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all. Paul Ryan is absolutely right that the present trend is unsustainable and must be corrected. The free marketeers of the 1980s were right that taxes on enterprise must be restrained to leave room for private-sector-led expansion. Over-generous social insurance has all kinds of negative consequences. Private saving must be encouraged. Work must pay better than idleness. The job of designing the right kind of social insurance state is hugely important and hugely difficult, and the conservative sensibility – with its respect for markets and less sentimental view of human nature – is the right sensibility for that job.

To be honest, other than the part about restraining taxes, there's not a lot there that I disagree with. Our long-term debt is unsustainable. And having been professionally involved in social services all of my adult life, I've seen some of the negative consequences that can result from poorly managed social insurance.

But most of all, I agree that a conservative sensibility is needed to balance out the left's tendency towards unproductive sentimentality. The problem is that the current crop of Republicans isn't providing that balance these days. Frum agrees.

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans... At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

Its interesting that Frum talks at the end about entrepreneurship and individualism being balanced with the social insurance state. Where else have we heard something like that recently?

The America we know is great not just because of the height of our skyscrapers, not just because of the size of our GDP. It comes because we’ve been able to keep two ideas together at the same time. The first is, is that we’re all individuals endowed with certain inalienable rights and freedoms. We are self-reliant. We don’t expect others to do for us what we can do for ourselves, and we don’t like other people telling us what to do. That’s part of what it’s like to be an American.

But the second idea is that we’re all in this together, that we look out for one another, that I am my brother’s keeper, that I am my sister’s keeper, that I want that child born in a tough neighborhood to have the same opportunities that I had so that someday they may be standing here instead of me.

- President Obama, April 21, 2011

That's right. While President Obama has been out defending our social compact with those in need, he's also launching things like StartUp America to re-energize innovation and entrepreneurship across the country.

So back to my question about people like Senator Collins and David Frum...what is their future? And I'm not just talking about public figures like them. I'm talking about everyday folks who see the world as they do. It's clear the Republican party of today has no place for them.

I'd send out an invitation to join us Democrats in the conversation.

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