The Magazine

Against the ‘New Normal’

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Are you alarmed by the counterterrorism failures increasingly evident as we learn more about the Boston terror attack? Don’t be. Former CIA director Michael Hayden has helpfully explained, “This tragedy is the new normal.”

BIG STOCK PHOTO

BIG STOCK PHOTO

Are you surprised that a whole city was ordered to “shelter in place” as one “knockoff jihadi,” in Vice President Biden’s term, roamed the streets? Don’t be. It’s the new normal. Are you shocked by the Obama administration’s dissembling in response to terror attacks in Benghazi? Don’t be naïve. It’s the new normal. Are you worried that the president proclaims “red lines” to deter dictators from, e.g., using chemical weapons, then does nothing to enforce them? Don’t be unsophisticated. As Rep. Adam Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, explained, “The president said it was a red line. What the president never said was what that meant exactly.” It’s the new normal. Are you startled that the commander in chief accepts defense cuts that the president’s own defense secretary said would be “devastating” and “a disaster” and “would inflict severe damage to our national defense”? Don’t be foolish. It’s the new normal.

And do you think, back home, that we might do better than slow economic growth, high long-term unemployment, mountains of debt, and a massive health care reform that’s a “train wreck,” in the felicitous term of the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who helped shepherd it through Congress? Didn’t you get the memo? It’s all the new normal.

By the way, the new normal is bipartisan. It’s of course true that the administration in power during this period of national decline has a particular interest in selling the concept of a new normal. It’s true that the idea fits uncommonly well with the fatalism that, beneath the airy talk of hope and change, lies at the heart of modern liberalism. But Republican elites aren’t immune to the charms of the new normal, which excuses subpar performance in so many areas.

So it’s apparently the new normal for GOP leaders in Congress to be more interested in exempting themselves from Obamacare than in laying the groundwork for repealing it, and thereby exempting all Americans. It’s apparently the new normal for GOP elites to spend all their time, money, and effort trying to quickly muscle through a poorly crafted immigration bill—which once passed will have irreversible effects—than trying to do anything significant for American workers or against crony capitalism. It’s apparently the new normal for GOP leaders, at once terrified and contemptuous of their own base, equally intimidated by donors and voters but uninterested in treating either group as grownups, to think they too can simply shelter in place, under the awning of the new normal. (One might add that, when it comes to the leaders of both parties colluding to preserve power and perquisites, the new normal bears a striking resemblance to the old normal.)

Normal Americans, we would wager, don’t accept the new normal. For one thing, they remember being told that all manner of problems, from the existence of the Soviet Union to economic stagflation to high crime rates to welfare dependency, had to be accepted as normal. Both party establishments were wrong in their earlier embrace of various pathologies deemed to be permanent. Why are they owed greater deference today?

There are times when the conservative party ought to be and has to be the party of normalcy, standing against utopian or destructive or foolish change. But there are times—and this is one of them—when a modern conservative party has to be the party that refuses to accept what is said to be normal. This is a time for a serious political party to point out that the new normal is merely a new excuse by the powers-that-be for their deficiencies and failures.

The historic task of American conservatism is not merely to defeat the liberal party in the next election, which, given the way things are going for this administration, shouldn’t be very difficult. It’s to refuse to accept, to boldly challenge, and to fundamentally reverse, an enervating “new normal” that would acquiesce in American decline and say farewell to American greatness.

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