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A Difference that Can’t Be Split

The parties have to fight over the budget because the status quo is untenable.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JAY COST
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Together, the different approaches that House Republicans and Senate Democrats have taken in dealing with the nation’s fiscal mess illustrate the profound changes occurring in American politics. Reid has chosen the fiscally irresponsible but politically easy path; Ryan the opposite. It is either one or the other, because the two goals are now mutually exclusive. A responsible policy requires a departure from the status quo—meaning higher taxes, entitlement reforms, or both—that will be politically dangerous. 

This implies the beginning of a new era in American politics. For generations, dating back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, Americans have been able to have their cake and eat it too. The growth of the economy always outstripped the social welfare ambitions of politicians in Washington. Thus, leaders could provide an ever-increasing stream of benefits to the citizenry—starting with generous Civil War pensions and ending most recently with Obamacare—without worrying that there would be no cash in the bank when the bill came due. In other words, economic growth has always ensured that, when push came to shove, pols never really had to make the hard choices. 

But no longer. As the CBO has made clear, the government’s obligations are right now growing faster than its capacity to pay for them. The future, in other words, is here. What this means in turn is that the center of American politics is no longer a responsible place for policymakers to reside. The era of guns, butter, and low taxes is at an end. 

Already, the country is in the slow, tortuous process of renegotiating the political settlement that generations of Americans have taken for granted. The adjustment will be completed only when the people recognize the scope of the problem and settle on broad parameters for addressing it. That has obviously not happened yet—poll after poll shows the average voter simply fails to understand what is driving the nation’s long-term, structural deficits. Nevertheless, the recent flare-ups over the budget—from the debt ceiling to the fiscal cliff to the upcoming continuing resolution—have all been as hot as they were because this change is now upon us. Politicians of generations past could pass a budget or agree to raise the debt ceiling without much trouble because they never really had to worry that the debt was out of control. Today, they have no such luxury. Hence the persistent fighting over what were once perfunctory tasks.  

Until the public makes up its mind about what to do next, all bets about American politics are off. The near-term political outlook is messy, fraught with finger-pointing, demagoguery, and vitriolic rhetoric as both sides try to position themselves. Over the last few cycles, we have seen wild swings in the political pendulum, and there is good reason to expect them to continue as the public comes to terms with the age of limits. 

Beyond that, projecting what will happen next is like trying to describe 1947 in 1927, or 1876 in 1856. Powerful exogenous forces are starting to reshape American politics, and it is simply impossible to say what the political divide will look like after they have finished their work. 

One thing, though, is clear: The political center as we know it today will no longer exist. For generations, Americans have demanded more, more, more from their government, which has been able to supply it without burdening the citizenry with onerous taxes. No longer. The time for painful choices is at hand.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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