Regular readers of this blog should have a pretty good idea of my politics by now, and its actually rather startling to see how I've far I've changed over the years, from a hard right conservative to a moderate to pretty mainstream Democrat. I look back to where I was at during the 1980s (high school), 1990s (college and beyond), and the early part of this decade, and compare that with how I'm feeling now, and I can't say that I was necessarily wrong then or obviously that I'm right now.
Really, I think the reality of the world has fundamentally changed, and obviously my understanding of the world has deepened, having more experience now than I did then. But I would like to believe that if I could inject my current self back into the 1980's I would still have been a Reagan supporter and a Republican (though not nearly as enthusiastic of one as I was back then) because I still believe Ronald Reagan was a good president, a man for the moment. Or if I could have transported myself back to the 1990's, I still believe I would have been disgusted by Clinton's moral failings and his lack of a core conviction, although I think I would have been against the impeachment attempts at the time, and maybe would have been more inclined to vote for him (over Dole) in 1996, although I still believe Bush Sr. was a good president and deserved another term.
But back to Reagan because he really defines the modern Republican party. He was the president that popularized this idea of denigrating the government institution and formalized into an election strategy this idea of low tax rates, small government, and free commerce.
Despite some of Reagan's most egregious problems - certainly you could make the case that Iran/Contra was the black eye that invalidated every other success he had as a president, or his ignoring the AIDS problem for as long as he did, or his alarming nuclear buildups. Despite all of that, he was the perfect anecdote for what ailed America at the time. The 1970's, America was in a funk. Vietnam sunk our confidence in our own ability that we can be a force for good in this world, the 1960's plunged us into a massive cultural civil war that has split our country in half politically. The 1970's was the decade of the Nixon impeachment, and a largely ineffectual Ford presidency, and a Carter presidency that made us ashamed to be an American.
Reagan brought in a gust of optimism and pro-American certitude. He successfully stared down the Russians and then he artfully transitioned toward embracing them which basically ushered in the end of the Cold War. He cut taxes on the richest of us true, but it needed to be done. Taxes were way too high and needed to be cut. He democratized stock ownership, the 401K as it is known today began during the Reagan administration. He opened trade and increased competition which most notably helped bring Japanese automobiles into America and by as a result, helped to improve drastically on automotive quality. He laid the groundwork for a society of individual accountability. He popularized the notion that the government largely needed to stay out of people's way, and that living in a free and open society, anybody could succeed based on their merits.
This sense of optimism was a perfect anecdote for the 1970's doldrums and was necessary as government bureaurocracy grew heavy as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society (and the like) were layered on top of Roosevelt's New Deal. I've heard that the richest Americans, for example, endured above a 80% income tax penalty which only encouraged those richest of Americans to spend money to dodge this tax.
The problem with the Republican party is that it has not evolved, at least not successfully. Republicans still evoke Reagan today, but the conditions of today are nothing like the conditions that existed 30 years ago. McCain tried very half-heartedly to leap back hundred years ago to progressive Republican mentality of Teddy Roosevelt. Bush Jr. tried to come up with a modern incarnation he termed "compassionate conservatism", but nobody really knew what any of this meant, and there was no intellectual meat behind these movements.
But Obama understands in his gut how much the world has changed, and how much we need a new approach. The best part of his inauguration speech:
"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."
And that is at the heart of where we're at in America today. The old battle lines of big government of Democrats versus small government Republicans has largely played out. The dirty fact is that even under Reagan, government grew. Its really difficult to get elected into office and then cut off your own arms and legs. Small government conservatism was never realistic in practice. The emphasis should have always been and will be now in instituting effective government.
Now, one argument I get tired of is how critics will always cite cases of government waste and corruption as a reason to cut government programs. But they always forget to about all of the waste, inefficiencies, corruption, and injustices in the private sector. Business is only effective when government is effective, and neither is effective unless we as individuals are effective. We are all important and need to work together and balance each other's excesses, and strengthen each other.
On that note, many people I've heard who have criticized the bailouts or the proposed stimulus plans also want to blame our economic problems on too much government. They blame Freddie and Fannie for giving out too many loans to the unqualified and the poor. They blame Greenspan for keeping interest rates too low and pine for the Federal Reserve to keep its hands off of our monetary system. They argue that largely our economy needs to be left alone, so that it can recover on its own terms.
I believe that this is a misguided, narrow, and partisan understanding of what is happening in our economy. I'm not saying that the government is not to blame. And that the Bush administration has hardly been a model overseer of our financial institutions. But when you elect a political party built on the idea that government is part of the problem and not the solution, its hard not to imagine that they will be less than fully engaged in those solutions.
When our government fails or misbehaves its not necessarily an excuse to throw the whole institution down the toilet, its time to replace the bad with something better.
And that, in my hope, is exactly what we've done. Obama is running on pragmatism and on believe that government can be effective and necessary in ensuring our economy runs smooth, to ensure that we have enough of a safety net to allow individuals the breathing room to take risks, to borrow, to invest, to improve their lives.
And so, my politics, now is based on a belief that the world has changed. We need government now more than ever, but we need a government that understand that its job fundamentally is to create an environment where institutions and individuals can thrive and find prosperity. And for that to happen, we need a strong, engaged, and well funded government.