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The Crisis

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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In his Inaugural Address, President Obama quoted from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”

And so, ironically, it will be told to the future world that in 2009 and 2010, Americans from city and country, alarmed at the common danger of President Obama’s agenda, came forth to meet it. They repudiated his program, after he’d sought to take advantage of the crisis he inherited to move the country to the left, and after he’d enacted much of his agenda—and made the crisis worse.

Now in 2011, Obama flails about, seeming to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So today the city and the country, alarmed at the danger posed by our president’s stubborn weakness and proud cluelessness in the midst of a deepening crisis, increasingly indicate that they plan to come forth to remove him from office after one term.

That will be a good thing. But it won’t be enough. It is now the historic task of the Republican party not merely to defeat President Obama, but to produce a nominee and an agenda that respond to the magnitude of the crisis we face.

Here’s Paine again, referring to the separation from Britain in 1776, in words almost equally applicable to separating ourselves from big government liberalism in 2012:

Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time or other finally take place, and a generous parent should have said, ‘If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace’; and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.

The duty is daunting: reducing an unsustainable debt; restoring economic growth and opportunity; establishing a limited and energetic government in place of a bloated, meddling, and ineffective one; rebuilding America’s defenses; and reestablishing respect for America around the world.

At least, after Obama, everyone understands that, in Paine’s words, “There are cases which cannot be overdone by language, and this is one.” This is a time for deeds. And, the more one looks at the magnitude of the crisis, the more one concludes those deeds will need to be bold. For now, with Obama in the White House, the task is primarily to prevent things from getting worse—a kind of holding action. But the next administration’s governing agenda will need to be anything but a holding action. It will need to implement broad policy changes based on a fundamental rethinking in many areas of government and public policy. In the economic sphere alone, there will have to be fiscal reform, budgetary reform, monetary reform, regulatory reform. It won’t be a time for tinkering.

The Republican presidential candidates, as well as current Republican members of Congress, can lay the groundwork, politically and intellectually, for such a reformist administration. Not all of their ideas will pan out. But what’s important is that their proposals be informed by a sense of the urgency of the moment and the scope of the challenge. In 2013, we’ll need action on the order of 1933 or 1981. Hoover, Carter, and Obama will go down in the history books as failed one-term presidents. Will Obama’s Republican successor be remembered as acting on the scale of FDR and Reagan?

The good news is that, though the challenges are great, the opportunities are great as well. With the right policies, and with all the pent-up capital that could be put to work, we could have an economic resurgence. The Arab Spring, and the real possibility of Iranian and Chinese springs, mean that the cause of freedom could progress under the sheltering wing of a strong America. The world of 2020 could be considerably safer and freer than today’s, and our polity and economy far healthier. The next Republican president needn’t simply be in the business of making painful cuts, or fending off great dangers. He could also usher in a more promising era for the country and the world.

So in January 2013, as he delivers his Inaugural Address, having campaigned on a bold and comprehensive agenda, the new president might also want to quote Paine: “I thank God that I fear not. I see no real cause for fear. I know our situation well, and can see the way out of it.”

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