The Washington Times

On the eve of the GOP and Democratic conventions, the real opening of the general election season, it might be useful to take a step back from the close-quarters combat of national electoral politics to see how far we’ve come in the past decade.

What’s striking is how utterly different the policy environment of 2000 is from the policy environment of 1990. Ten years ago, a Republican president and a Democratic Congress were struggling to reach agreement on a major tax increase in order to address a huge budget deficit. Today, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president argue over how much to cut taxes, thanks in part to a swelling budget surplus.

Ten years ago, it was possible to wonder if government could ever reform vast entitlement programs – welfare, for example, notwithstanding its increasingly obvious debilitating effects on the poor, or Medicare, notwithstanding certain financial ruin as the population ages. Now, the welfare entitlement is gone, and the general outlines of Medicare reform are a subject of agreement by both political parties; enactment just awaits the political moment, which everyone expects to arrive soon.

In 1990, recession was looming, and the memory of the severe economic downturn of 1982 was fresh. So were memories of inflation and double-digit interest rates. Now, it’s not inflation, ravenously eating up people’s life savings and distorting the economy, that people worry about, but “inflationary pressures” of a sort that might call forth another quarter percent increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve.

What accounts for these changes? Partisans on both sides have their explanations. But it strikes me that the most likely explanation is that the mainstream views of both parties have converged around a center-right electorate that is not much interested in politics.

This has been a painful process. With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrats had the uniquely thrilling experience of the conviction that the natural order of things had been restored to Washington at last. This is hardly a sentiment that encourages political caution and moderation. If politics is the art of the possible, here the problem is that one’s sense of what’s possible is fairly brimming. This ended badly, with the disintegration of the administration’s hugely ambitious health care reform initiative and the loss of control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years.

This in turn led Republicans to the conclusion that their moment, the Revolution, had arrived. If any Washington conservatives at the time thought the experience of the Clinton administration and the Democratic Congress over the previous two years should serve as a cautionary tale for Republicans, the holders of such views were keeping a low profile. Most conservatives have had a hard time coming to terms with their disappointment when their moment likewise ended badly. (Not me: I will gladly admit I was completely wrong about what the political system could be made to deliver. But we had a great year – comparable in spirit, I think, to the New Left’s heyday of protest, though fueled by martinis rather than psychotropic drugs. They tried to levitate the Pentagon; we tried to eliminate the Education Department – to similar effect.)

The Democrats mainly regrouped around the centrist themes Bill Clinton ran on in 1992 in the first place, before veering sharply left. And by the time the impeachment process unfolded, Republicans had abandoned any lingering impression they may have had that the American electorate is especially passionate for radical change. Hence a politics in which the activist left of the Democratic Party and the activist right of the GOP are each supposed to behave themselves for the sake of the cause. This incrementalism is not pleasant for those whose convictions run deep. But it is an environment in which people can do business, their eyes on the polls, their efforts aimed at balancing the need to keep the base vote energized and the need to appeal to the center.

This policy status quo is closer to conservative preferences than to liberal preferences – and liberals know it. There is nothing comparable to the Ralph Nader rebellion in the GOP. Conservatives long ago made their peace with George W. Bush, and while many persist in the view that Congress is inept or cowardly or both, they do not necessarily think there is anything that can be done about it. Instead, they await the arrival of a Republican president.

What accounts for the center-right (as opposed to dead center or center-left) quality of the policy status quo? The explanation, I think, lies in part in the disengagement of so many people from politics. What can this mean but that a large number of people have concluded that politics has few answers to the problems they have in their lives? This is a view more conservative than not. It translates into minimal demand for activism in governance – no vast new programs, thanks. But neither is there a demand that programs be swiftly disassembled.

Many people have decided, in effect, to leave Washington to Washington, so long as it doesn’t intrude upon them unduly – and if it does, they will be moved to anger. That sensibility turns out to be fairly conducive to conservative reform of the kind that characterizes our policy status quo.