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The Vision Thing

12:14 PM, Apr 15, 2009 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The Republicans are in a terrible position. The party is at its lowest ebb since Watergate. They no longer control an elected branch of the federal government. President Obama remains popular and has the public's trust. And while the public is ambivalent about some of Obama's policies, that still doesn't translate into support for Republicans. Americans liked Ronald Reagan more than they liked his policies. He was reelected in a landslide.

There's a temptation for Republicans to content themselves with short-term victories. After all, they've offered some sharp criticisms of Obama's tax and spending plans. They've been able to sideline card check for this year. Obama's cap-and-trade scheme is probably a no-go in this Congress, too. And the GOP will have more luck than people think in fighting the Medicare-for-all "public option" when the Democrats unveil their health care bill this summer.

What the Republicans are missing is a sense of where they'd like to take the country. They lack a vision of community. Or, if they do have one, they haven't articulated it very well.

Obama doesn't have this problem. His April 14 speech at Georgetown University not only gave a compelling explanation of how we ended up in this economic mess. It also presented a set of principles that, Obama claims, will carry the country into a new era of durable and equitable prosperity. Obama calls them the "five pillars."

What are the five pillars? Regulation, education, alternative energy, health care, and budget cuts. Obama's entire agenda boils down to these five things. He wants tighter regulation of the financial industry, more spending on education, alternative energies, and health care, and cuts for those few government programs that conservatives like (namely, Defense). It all adds up to a superficially appealing vision of where the country ought to be in 20 years.

The Republicans' job is to 1) point out the flaws in Obama's vision and 2) offer their own. The smart choice would be to focus on energy and health care. A cap-and-trade system that raises energy prices across the board and offers multiple opportunities for rent-seeking and corporatism is a messy and expensive way to deal with climate change. And Obama's health plans rest on a non sequitur: He wants to cut costs while expanding government insurance. It's a leap in logic that makes zero sense. As we see in Massachusetts, universal coverage is a fiscal nightmare waiting to happen.

Those are the criticisms. What about the "vision thing"? Michael Barone suggests one possible message in his Examiner column today. Obama's vision rests on the attractive but unwieldy ideal of rational (i.e., government) control. Liberals assume that reality will bend easily to their mechanisms for building what they see as a better society. But the world doesn't work that way. The best laid plans ... paved with good intentions ... don't count your chickens before they come home to roost (or something like that) ... and so on.

The problem with grand visions is that they end up producing unintended consequences which often create bigger messes than those you started with. The alternative? Trust in the productive capacities of the American people. Build (properly regulated!) markets and create incentives for citizens to save, invest, trade, and prosper as they choose. It's possible that Americans are so fed up with the GOP that they'll back Obama anyway. But something tells me they'll eventually be drawn to a vision of society where responsible families make their own choices without the supervision of busybodies and know-it-alls. Sure, it may take 28 years. But it could come sooner. You never know.