We learned, I think, two important things from Tuesday’s State of the Union speech and the GOP rebuttal. Both had to do with the power struggles within the two parties, and who now has the upper hand in those battles.
On the Democratic side, the Bill Daley-Bruce Reed Clintonites have taken control of the Obama administration, and thereby (for now at least) the Democratic Party too. The era of big liberalism is over. The five-year spending freeze, the tepid defense of the health care plan, the virtual nonexistence of a defense of the stimulus and the economic theory behind it, and many other aspects of the speech were far removed from the grand promises and bold claims of the original hope-and-change President Barack Obama.
All the windy talk about Sputnik and “winning the future” and “we do big things” just made it more evident how much the original Obama dreams of transforming America have collapsed, and how much the administration is now involved in defending and tinkering with the status quo. It is a liberal, big-government status quo — made much more so by the past two years — and it has its own momentum toward ever-larger government.
So it is fair to say the Obama administration remains wedded to the liberal, big-government nanny state. But it is a marriage, or a civil union, not a romance. The question is whether, given today’s global and fiscal realities, we can go back to the 1990s, and whether Clintonian triangulation will lead either to policy or political successes.
I am doubtful that the answer to that question is likely to be yes — but of course the answer also depends on what path the Republican Party takes. And here, I think, commentators are missing the significance of Rep. Paul Ryan’s response. Yes, Ryan is younger and friendlier and smarter than your typical old-guard Republican. But he is much more radical in both his thinking and his political strategy.
In his response, Ryan did not dot every i and cross every t in addressing entitlements such as Medicare. But when he says, “Health care spending is driving the explosive growth of our debt,” he knew, and he knows everyone else knows, federal “health care spending” is basically Medicare and Medicaid — two of the big-three entitlements. And when he says, “The president’s law is accelerating our country toward bankruptcy,” he is implying that even without Obamacare we were heading, more slowly, in that direction.
And when Ryan argues that “our debt is out of control. What was a fiscal challenge is now a fiscal crisis. We cannot deny it. Instead, we must, as Americans, confront it responsibly,” this means the GOP budget proposal will have to deal with entitlements. Ryan, backed by the spirit of the tea party, is successfully dragging an often-reluctant Republican Party into a stance of both fiscal responsibility and political boldness.
So the battle between status quo big-government liberalism and reformist limited-government conservatism has now been framed. It will be a very interesting year.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.