WASHINGTON – “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that
Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” That was Barack
Obama in 2008. And he was right. Reagan was an ideological inflection point,
ending a 50-year liberal ascendancy and beginning a 30-year conservative
It is common for one party to take control and enact its
ideological agenda. Ascendancy, however, occurs only when the opposition
inevitably regains power and then proceeds to accept the basic premises of the
Thus, Republicans railed for 20 years against the
New Deal. Yet when they regained the White House in 1953, they kept the New Deal
And when Nixon followed LBJ’s Great Society – liberalism’s second
wave – he didn’t repeal it. He actually expanded it. Nixon created the
Environmental Protection Agency, gave teeth to the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission and institutionalized affirmative action – major adornments of
Until Reagan. Ten minutes into his presidency,
Reagan declares that “government is not the solution to our problem, government
is the problem.”
Having thus rhetorically rejected the very premise of
the New Deal/Great Society, he sets about attacking its foundations – with
radical tax reduction, major deregulation, a frontal challenge to unionism
(breaking the air traffic controllers for striking illegally) and an (only
partially successful) attempt at restraining government
Reaganism’s ascendancy was confirmed when the other guys came to
power and their leader, Bill Clinton, declared (in his 1996 State of the Union
address) that “the era of big government is over” – and then abolished welfare,
the centerpiece “relief” program of modern liberalism.
In Britain, the
same phenomenon: Tony Blair did to Thatcherism what Clinton did to Reaganism. He
made it the norm.
Obama’s intention has always been to renormalize, to
reverse ideological course, to be the anti-Reagan – the author of a new liberal
ascendancy. Nor did he hide his ambition. In his February 2009 address to
Congress he declared his intention to transform America.
This was no
abstraction. He would do it in three areas: healthcare, education and
Think about that. Healthcare is one-sixth of the economy.
Education is the future. And energy is the lifeblood of any advanced country –
control pricing and production and you’ve controlled the industrial
And it wasn’t just rhetoric. He enacted liberalism’s holy grail:
the nationalization of healthcare. His $830 billion stimulus, by far the largest
spending bill in US history, massively injected government into the free market
– lavishing immense amounts of tax dollars on favored companies and industries
in a naked display of industrial policy.
And what Obama failed to pass
through Congress, he enacted unilaterally by executive action. He could not pass
cap-and-trade, but his EPA is killing coal. (No new coal-fired power plant would
ever be built.) In 2006, liberals failed legislatively to gut welfare’s work
requirement. Obama’s new HHS rules does that by fiat. Continued in a second
term, it would abolish welfare reform as we know it – just as in a second term,
natural gas will follow coal, as Obama’s EPA regulates fracking into
Government grows in size and power as the individual
shrinks into dependency. Until the tipping point where dependency becomes the
new norm – as it is in Europe, where even minor retrenchment of the entitlement
state has led to despair and, for the more energetic, rioting.
second term means that the movement toward European-style social democracy
continues, in part by legislation, in part by executive decree. The American
experiment – the more individualistic, energetic, innovative, risk-taking model
of democratic governance – continues to recede, yielding to the supervised life
of the entitlement state.
If Obama loses, however, his presidency becomes
a historical parenthesis, a passing interlude of overreaching hyper-liberalism,
rejected by a center-right country that is 80 percent nonliberal.
they summon the skill and dexterity, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could guide the
country to the restoration of a more austere and modest government with more
restrained entitlements and a more equitable and efficient tax code. Those
achievements alone would mark a new trajectory – a return to what Reagan started
three decades ago.
Every four years we are told that the coming election
is the most important of one’s life. This time it might actually be true. At
stake is the relation between citizen and state, the very nature of the American
Charles Krauthammer’s email address is letters@
charleskrauthammer.com.(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group