The Magazine

Suckers?

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"They are suckers,” one senior Democratic congressional aide told Politico.

Suckers?

He was speaking of the House Republicans who last week committed to detailed proposals to reduce entitlement spending. President Obama had punted in his budget. Plenty of powerful Republicans were happy to punt right back. Who wants to go first in sketching out risky cuts and controversial changes? But the forces of reform and responsibility in the House GOP caucus, led by Budget chairman Paul Ryan, have prevailed.

And so, when the House GOP releases its 2012 budget in a month or two, it will be a serious one, despite the president’s failure to be serious. As House GOP leaders put it last week, “Our budget will lead where the president has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms.”

The senior Democratic aide’s further judgment: “They have painted themselves into a corner.”

But of course it’s entitlements that have painted all of us into a corner. It’s a dark and depressing corner, in which politicians cower, citizens duck responsibility, and the nation declines. The Republicans, rising above the normal standards of partisan calculation, are trying to lead us out of that corner. The mainstream media will give them little credit. The Democrats will pummel them.

And the question is: Are they suckers?

The answer depends on whether the American people are suckers. If P.T. Barnum is right that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” then the Republicans may pay a price for their courage. And Barnum was certainly a successful businessman.

But who really wants to be the party of P.T. Barnum? Is that a sustainable model for the Democrats? Will young people be attracted to a party that rests on cynicism and exploits fear? There is something, after all, in a modern and forward-looking democracy, to being the party of hope and change.

Even P.T. Barnum couldn’t stick resolutely to cynicism throughout his life. He was repelled by the institution of chattel slavery, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 led him to leave the Democrats to join the new Republican party. Elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican, Barnum participated in the debate over the ratification by his state of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. Speaking to the state legislature, he proclaimed, “A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot​—​it is still an immortal spirit!”

Surprising words for the most celebrated and successful proprietor in American history of freak shows, circus acts, and oddball hoaxes. But that’s America​—​an amazing mixture of high purpose and humbug. The Republican party is betting this can be a moment for high purpose. The Republicans are betting the American people will rise to the occasion.

The Democrats will construct halls of horrors, terrifying displays of the carnage wrought by what is in fact a sensible effort to restore limited government and ensure national solvency.

The Democrats and the Obama administration are playing the American people for suckers. We trust they’ll fail.

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