Will: Obama Is a Tonic for Conservatism

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Republicans take the oath of office as Congress convenes on Jan. 5, 2011. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.
—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

A specter is haunting America, the specter of Europe. Which is just one reason why Barack Obama’s first two years have been such a tonic for conservatism.

America’s debate about government’s proper size and purposes has proceeded against the backdrop of European disorders, such as rioting by French young people. Some of them, although they have not yet entered the labor market (unemployment is 25 percent among those under 25), are indignant that when they do, they will have to remain in it for two extra years because the retirement age has been raised to 62.

Such demonstrations of government-induced decadence—a.k.a. the entitlement mentality—have provided counterpoints to the Great Unraveling. That has been the fate of American liberals’ agenda in the 24 months since Barack Obama’s inauguration. That event was supposed to launch a long liberal epoch, something unknown since the one that ended in 1938, when the nation recoiled against Franklin Roosevelt’s overreaching, which included his attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court by enlarging it. Because the episode that ended in 1938 had lasted only six years, counting it as an “epoch” amounts to defining “epoch” down. Today, the long list of liberal disappointments is still growing:

Organized labor’s top priority—“card check” legislation to make unionization of workplaces easier by abolishing workers’ rights to secret ballots—is dead. So is the environmentalists’ dream of a cap-and-trade regime—or, failing that, a carbon tax. The Environmental Protection Agency, which seems determined to do by regulation what Congress will not do by legislation concerning limits on emissions, is provoking a contest with Congress over supremacy—a contest the EPA cannot win because Congress cannot afford to lose.

The near invisibility and complete futility of last month’s Cancún conference on climate change marked the exhaustion of a U.N. delusion: It was that almost 200 nations were going to negotiate a treaty unanimously requiring a few of them to bribe the rest to reduce greenhouse--gas emissions—and that 67 U.S. senators would vote to ratify it.

Things that liberals thought would be gone by now include: Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, and the Bush tax rates. Having denounced extension of those rates as “odious,” what adjective has The New York Times reserved for, say, genocide?

Regarding the rates applicable to high earners and large estates, most Americans seem to be channeling Mark Twain. When a journalist suggested that the vast wealth of one of Twain’s friends, a Standard Oil executive, was “tainted,” Twain replied, “It’s doubly tainted—t’aint yours and t’aint mine.”

People who, 24 months ago, thought Obama would inaugurate a new New Deal subscribed to the theory that economic difficulties propel Americans leftward. The New Deal experience suggests otherwise.

In the 1932 presidential election, three years past the October 1929 stock-market crash, and with unemployment at 25 percent, the Socialist Party received a paltry 2.23 percent of the popular vote and the Communist Party received 0.26 percent. By 1940, the Depression had proved to be durable in spite of New Deal measures. Or perhaps because of those measures: America’s longest slump was the first to be combated by federal-government activism. In any case, in 1940 the Socialist Party received 0.23 percent and the Communist Party received 0.1 percent.

Conservatism continues to benefit from Washington’s most conspicuous foray into industrial policy—its misadventures with Detroit. The federal government is buying about one in four Ford and General Motors hybrids. The public, always a disappointment to Washington, is not buying enough of them. But Washington is offering a $7,500 tax credit to induce people to buy the hybrid-electric Chevrolet Volt. Yet a GM ad says, “When you buy a Chevrolet, we’ll invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and tree-planting programs.” Question: Should GM pay back the $26.4 billion it still owes tax-payers before it indulges in trendy spending of other people’s money on tree plantings?

GM’s CEO Dan Akerson says his company is handicapped by government limits on executive compensation at firms that receive federal bailouts. Last year his salary and stock package of $9 million was $8,820,300 more than it should have been: $179,700 is the highest pay for civil servants, which is what executives at such firms are.

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