July 18, 2008, New York Times, The Coming Activist Age, by David Brooks.
Were entering an era of epic legislation. There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.
First, there is the erosion of the social contract. Private sector firms are less likely to provide health benefits, producing a desperate need for health care reform. Second, there is the energy shortage. Rising Asian demand strains worldwide supply, threatening industry and consumers, and producing calls for a bold energy initiative. Third, there is the stagnation in human capital. During the 20th century, Americans were better educated than the citizens of any other power. Since 1970, that lead has been forfeited, producing inequality and wage stagnation. To compete, the U.S. will require a series of human capital initiatives.
Fourth, theres financial market reform. In an intricately connected world, even Republican administrations cannot allow big institutions to fail. If government is going to guarantee against failure, then it is inevitably going to get more involved in regulating how businesses are run. Fifth, theres infrastructure reform. The U.S. transportation system is in shambles and will require major new projects.
All of this means that the next few years will be an age of government activism. You may think, therefore, that this situation is ripe for Democratic dominance. The Democrats are the natural party of federal vigor. Voters prefer Democratic approaches to issues like health care and education by as much as 25 percentage points.
Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule. Its as if voters understand that they need big changes, but they want those changes planned and enacted by leaders who will restrain the pace of change and prevent radical excess.
Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.
Disraeli inherited a British Conservative Party that was a political club for the landowning class. He created One Nation Conservatism, a reminder that Britain was one community, with a sense of mutual responsibility across classes. Then, at the pinnacle of his career, he embraced reform, expanding the franchise to the socially conservative working class.
Disraeli saw this change as a way to restore ancient glories. Or, as he put it: In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.
Like Disraeli, Roosevelt was a romantic nationalist. While the more progressive reformers spoke the international language of modernization, Roosevelt spoke the language of highly charged Americanism.
He believed private property was the basis of American greatness. He built his persona around the classic American icons: the cowboy, fighter and pioneer.
He defended his initiatives as the way to maintain the economic and social order. People had enough change in their lives; they were looking for government that could preserve the way things already were. If the trusts threatened the traditional small businessman, he would take on the trusts. If industrialism threatened the natural landscape, he would become a preservationist.
His formula was like Disraelis: political innovation to restore traditional national morality. He had an image of an American hero thrifty, hard-working, vigorous and righteous and sought to create a Square Deal for that sort of person. The true function of the state as it interferes in social life, Roosevelt wrote, should be to make the chances of competition more even, not to abolish them.
John McCains challenge is to recreate this model. He will never get as many cheers in Germany as Barack Obama, but for a century his family has embodied American heroism. He will never seem as young and forward-leaning as his opponent, but he did have his values formed in an age that people now look back to with respect.
The high point of his campaign, so far, has been his energy policy, which is comprehensive and bold, but does not try to turn us into a nation of bicyclists. It does not view Americas energy-intense economy as a sign of sinfulness.
If McCain is going to win this election, it will because he can communicate an essential truth that people in a great and successful nation do not want change for its own sake. But they do realize that its only through careful reform that they can preserve what they and their ancestors have so laboriously built.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company