We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem…….The era of big government is over.—President Bill Clinton, State of the Union Speech, January 23, 1996
Well, Joe Biden obviously didn’t get the memo, and what he has laid out over the past several weeks and in his speech to Congress and the people this past week is the largest and most radical overhaul of America’s social contract since the Great Depression. If even a significant part of it is finally enacted, it will represent an almost total dependence of the middle class on government from cradle to grave in the model of the Great Society of the 1960s, without even the pretense of the old contract that tied benefits to work, and will make Americans the wards of government beholden to the Democratic Party. FDR and LBJ will look like minor players in comparison.
What has Biden done over the past 100 days to convince anyone but himself and his radical progressive base that he has a mandate for this? Exactly nothing. The Wall Street Journal editorial board put it best just before his speech: “When President Biden addresses Congress, he won’t salute his predecessor but he should (he didn’t). Donald Trump’s raucous Presidency has let the Democrat sell a radical agenda in the soothing tones of a return to normal, while the vaccine project known as Operation Warp Speed has teed up the end of the pandemic and an economic revival. This is the main story of Mr. Biden’s first 100 days”. That pretty well sums it up and, in fact, is manifest in his total output which consists of over 60 executive orders, almost all of which simply reversed those issued by Trump. Otherwise, he has actually done nothing except talk about the need for “unity”. And good luck with that while he has adopted the rhetoric and agenda of “social justice” based on critical race theory.
But somehow he has convinced himself that he can read the American people, that the country is at an inflection point, that “we have to prove that democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people”. A very high risk gamble for the country and a guy who has been very lucky so far. Elections have consequences.
Meanwhile, whither the loyal opposition? While we deliberate on Biden’s agenda for at least the rest of this year, what should be the response to this radicalism by the Republican Party? To me it’s pretty clear that this party, which should be the home of conservative ideas and policy, needs to pull itself together and define itself in a post-Trump world. Not necessarily post-Trumpism in all respects, mind you, but a vision based on ideas, not personalities. A good place to start is with Sen. Tim Scott’s response to Biden’s speech, wherein he delivered at least two bold messages: One, that America is not a racist country and should forcefully reject the notion of “systemic racism”, and two, a vision that focuses on the dignity of work, individual freedom over government dependence, and commitment to the principle of equal opportunity for all.
But this introspection must be about more than one speech. The Party’s recent Florida retreat was a good start to the conversation, but the GOP and the country it aspires to lead need concerted and aggressive action now to confront what I believe is arguably the most significant threat to the republic since the Civil War–the march of the progressive left through our institutions and our culture in the pursuit of a perverted version of “social justice”.
In a recent interview, President George W. Bush was asked to characterize the Republican Party in its current focus and his answer was “isolationist”, “protectionist”, and “trending nativist”. He had better be wrong, but I fear that he is not, and the point is that this question and many other strategic questions need lots of discussion and soul-searching. In a recent essay in National Review, policy advisor Avik Roy posed the question, “do you know which reforms conservative politicians will try to enact if they have a chance to run the government in 2025? Your guess is as good as mine.” And this is from a policy insider, which is why I believe that this process should begin right now in order to achieve leadership sign-off and a rollout well in advance of the 2022 election, in essence having the effect of nationalizing the election. A good model for this process is the Contract With America led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 in the run-up to the election that year which resulted in the Republicans taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years. If ever the Party needed a new contract, it desperately needs one now in its own interests, but more importantly, the interests of the country.
Such a contract should be concise–a brief preamble and 10 bullet points with one paragraph each on no more than one page, buttressed by expanded policy rationale. It should encompass foreign and domestic policy, including social issues, and committed to a vote on any resulting legislation within 100 days after Congress takes office in January 2023.
This country is crying out for this kind of leadership and it will not get anything approaching it from the current party in power. The question is whether or not the loyal opposition has the courage and leadership skills to provide it. If not, American policy conservatism will be without a viable vehicle and we’re in big trouble.