The 2012 Battle for the Welfare State: Will It Play?

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The philosophy behind Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan misses the point: first-world states take care of their own

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Helmut Schmidt, the great West German Chancellor and former Nazi artilleryman, is now, at the age of 92, confined to a wheel chair. He continues to chain-smoke Renos, and has a tendency to push himself in and out from his desk incessantly as he speaks. When we met last March in a smoky, Hamburg office still modeled off the years of his chancellorship, he predicted divisive, perhaps violent years ahead for America.

"By the middle of the century," he said, "the Hispanics and the Afro-Americans, these two minorities together, on the one hand they will form a majority of the electorate, and on the other hand they will demand social security for themselves. They will demand access to colleges and to universities and to positions higher up in the economy and the society."

The shifting demographic has been affirmed by the 2010 census, and is not, unto itself, particularly revelatory. Schmidt's prediction of an ethnic clash alongside the shift is more original, though hopefully less prescient.

The truth is that America's recession would have produced a good deal more misery if not for the social safety net, no matter how much Ryan and his comrades bemoan its existence.

Such demands will go "against basic instincts of the white Anglo-Saxon population," in Schmidt's assessment, and are likely to lead to conflict. The demands are certain to include citizenship, in the case of tens of millions of Latinos, and schools that graduate more than 55-65 percent of their poorest pupils. They're likely to include a social safety net with fewer holes -- more than 60 percent of personal bankruptcies are the result of medical bills, according to a Harvard Medical school study from 2009 (PDF) -- and more attention to workers' rights in farming and services industries.

It is beginning to look as if the 2012 election, rather than an ambiguous point in the mid-century, could mark the switch to such race-centric politics. And it looks like the transition could be driven by Anglos, rather than blacks or Latinos.

The Republican Party is in the process of testing messages and personalities for the 2012 election, and none of the potential candidates have the power of intellect or personality to shape debate as candidate Obama did in 2008.

That will leave the party beholden to more organic currents within the conservative movement. And those appear, at the moment, to be rather hysteric: certain that the government is nearing bankruptcy; anxious that the American character is under assault; convinced the president is not natural born; and willing to drive the federal government to the brink of shutdown over the funding of abortions in Washington, D.C., which the Congress has the chore of governing.

The Tea Party's calls to gut the federal budget seem to have coalesced with a more traditional conservative view of declining national character. There's a growing sense on the right that a war for the American soul is at hand, and the collision of thought is perhaps best captured by a T-shirt seen on Capitol Hill last week. It featured a red bull's eye, and the words, "Endangered Species, Tax Paying American Citizen."

But taking up that anxious and xenophobic sentiment as a political mantle -- as Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and others seem willing to do -- appears rather shortsighted politically. According to recent history, at least.

George W. Bush, with control of both the House and Senate in 2005, found that elderly, white, conservative voters were unwilling to entertain the idea toying with Social Security privatizations. And the healthcare debate of 2010 showed the same demographic equally reactionary to changes in the Medicare program. Any serious changes to long-term fiscal stability will require tackling both those giants and defense spending, rather than skirmishing at the margins of discretionary expenditures.

Irving Kristol, the intellectual giant of modern American conservatism, argued in his 1995 book Neoconservatism:

The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy -- as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our Urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind... they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

The fact has been lost on most conservatives. And calls to save America from the fate of Europe, rather than demands to improve the system, have become mantra.

"Europe's people have labored under the rock of its welfare state for decades," Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, who is among the most innovative, young, and cerebral members of the Republican caucus, told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute last December. "And now Europe's debt crisis has lifted that rock and we see the moral ugliness that has developed underneath... Take a look at British university students, who are shattering windows because they don't want to share the cost of their own education. Greek mobs murdering bank tellers, because their workplace happens to be a symbol of fiscal reality? Good grief."

The truth is that America's recession would have produced a good deal more misery if not for the social safety net, no matter how much Ryan and his comrades bemoan its existence. Social Security checks continued to arrive, cushioning layoffs, and medical bills, for seniors at least, continued to be covered by Medicare. Neither crutch existed during the Great Depression.

The Republican Party has been chasing a ghost for more than 20 years, ever since Ronald Reagan doubled the deficit and seared simple words into the simple American mind.

But the narrative taking hold is quite powerful, and the Republican Party will have no choice but to move with it. It holds that the nation has devolved, and the problem lies as much with the decline of American individualism as deficiencies funding the entitlement programs.

Former British Prime Minister John Major told me in London last year, "I became a conservative because of the circumstances in which I lived, and because of what was then said. The Conservative Party said, 'We will create the circumstances in which you can get yourself out of that.'"

Conservative ideas are crucial to grappling with the problems America is pitted against, and the Republican Party would be well served to tailor its 2012 platform to the basic tenet of conservatism that Major notes.

Individual responsibility and savings through Roth IRAs is preferable to the bureaucracy and demographic challenges posed by a Social Security program; emphasis on teacher responsibility, the capacity to fire failing educators and to reward those who achieve, is key to renovating education; and getting Americans to behave more prudently in healthcare consumption and diet is critical to reining in the medical costs. These are important and principled conservative approaches.

Demanding less government and slashing through discretionary spending is not a viable solution to the myriad of American problems, though.

The Republican Party has been chasing a ghost for more than 20 years, ever since Ronald Reagan doubled the deficit and seared simple words into the simple American mind: "Government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem."

It is time they gave up the chase, and accepted that first-world states take care of their disparaged. It is also time both parties got serious about the long terms structural problems at hand, and quit fear mongering in the near term that risks a terrifyingly fragile recovery.

Otherwise, as Chancellor Schmidt notes, we're headed for a divisive and violent century.

Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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