Irving Kristol, a giant of the 20th century, left us this past week. “Mugged by reality” was his famous description of his personal journey from socialist to liberal to godfather of the neo-conservative movement. That describes what has happened to the American public and, in his waning days, Kristol must have been proud.
Last fall, the American people elected Barack Obama as President. Despite his clear lack of experience he was able to put together a campaign that toppled the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. He then ran a solid campaign against John McCain. At times, Obama appeared to be the grown-up in the campaign as McCain made misstep after misstep. While it is doubtful that Mr. Obama would be president today had it not been for the downfall of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing fiscal crisis, he won the 2008 election fair and square.
His victory left him and his team with the impression that he had a mandate -- to make significant changes in public policy. The Obama team felt they could use the cover of the financial crisis to change the dynamics of how our private and public sectors interact. They allied with members of Congress like Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman who have waited a political lifetime to implement fundamental and far-reaching changes that tilt the balance toward the public sector. They had seen it happen in certain European countries and felt that the moment had arrived to achieve it here.
We are now in the midst of the single largest domestic public policy debate in my lifetime. Certainly there were intense debates when Ronald Reagan asserted his positions in the 1980’s. There was also significant discussion during the Clinton years about his proposals for health care and welfare reform. The most heated disputes have occurred around foreign policy issues -- Viet Nam, Iran-Contra and the Iraq War have all raised greater public ire.
However, the size of the current debate generates from the overwhelming magnitude of change in public policy proposed for this country. This includes the stimulus package, the energy bill commonly referred to as “Cap and Trade,” the public takeover of segments of the automobile and finance industry, the huge annual increase in government expenditures and above all the linchpin – health care.