Will the Politics of Nostalgia Trump the Politics of the Future?

Michael Barone
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Posted: Mar 15, 2016 12:01 AM
Will the Politics of Nostalgia Trump the Politics of the Future?

The likely presidential nominee of the Republican Party and the certain (barring indictments) nominee of the Democratic Party have something in common, something more than residences in New York: campaign appeals based on nostalgia.

Consider Donald Trump's official campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again." His reference point is not the Founding Fathers, whom Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz frequently invoke. It's also not the New Deal, the civil rights revolution or post-World War II European socialism, which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sometimes celebrate. No, Trump is invoking Ronald Reagan and the America of a generation or so ago.

But his policies are plainly incapable of restoring that imagined past. He talks of expelling (temporarily?) 11 million illegal immigrants and building a fence, eight years after net immigration from Mexico fell to zero.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, in contrast, advocate enforcement measures (such as e-Verify and visa tracking) that would incentivize illegals to leave. And looking to future needs, Rubio and Cruz support changing policy to favor high-skill immigration rather than the low-skilled immigration and family reunification that current law allows.

On trade Trump threatens to use current presidential authority to start a trade war, which, as Cruz explained, will mean much higher prices for diapers and kids' school clothes at Wal-Mart. Trump promises that all those auto assembly jobs lost 25 and 35 years ago will somehow reappear.

That ain't going to happen. In contrast, his rivals' proposals for vocational education could help non-college men qualify for high-skill manufacturing jobs likely to open up in the future.

On Social Security, Trump echoes Democratic politicians who, despite clear demographic projections, say the program can continue as is. No higher retirement age, no limiting increases to inflation, no downward adjustment of high-earners' benefits, as Rubio proposes and Cruz partially endorses.

Trump's position is a shining example of baby boomer selfishness. He was born in 1946, generally considered the first year of the baby boom generation, as were Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But Clinton at least toyed with seeking needed changes in entitlements and Bush expended political capital in doing so.

Trump says that things will be fine for the next 22 years, when he will turn 92. It's the same mentality as that of public employee unions and (mostly Democratic) public officials who have burdened states like Illinois and California with pension burdens that threaten to gobble up the rest of government: Hey, it's not my problem.

Boomer selfishness and solipsism is apparent also in Hillary Clinton, who turns 69 this year, and Bernie Sanders, who turns 75. For some people, it's always time for Woodstock. Back then, in 1969, most liberals -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan a prominent exception -- thought there was nothing that government couldn't do.

Sanders' promises of free health care, free college tuition and free Ben & Jerry's (just kidding about that last one) ignore the copious evidence that government is getting worse, not better, at delivering on its promises.

Even a brief look at Britain's National Health Services shows that it holds down cost by denying care. The Scandinavian nations whose example Sanders cites have been cutting back on welfare benefits and cutting taxes to encourage economic growth. Also, Sweden and Britain have been providing school choice.

Clinton, like Sanders, wants to lock downscale children in failing public schools; teacher unions come first. They apparently haven't noticed the dismal selfishness of Veterans Affairs bureaucrats or the incompetence of Environmental Protection Agency personnel who let loose tons of pollutant in Colorado rivers and failed to protect against lead in the water in Flint.

Back in 1969 it was assumed that economic growth could be taken for granted; regulation and higher taxes seemed cost-free. So Sanders wants to altogether ban fracking -- one of the few vibrant sources of growth in the Obama years -- and Clinton promises to pretty much shut it down.

Those acquainted with the longer run of history know that free enterprise operating under the rule of law has enormously improved life for billions of people -- producing "the great escape" from poverty described in Nobel economist Angus Deaton's recent book.

Nostalgic politicians, such as central planners Clinton and Sanders and billionaire dealmaker Trump, promise to effortlessly reproduce supposed glorious pasts. Free market politicians, such as Rubio and Cruz, have the harder task of promising a better future they cannot exactly describe, because markets always produce surprises planners can't anticipate.

Rubio may be stopped in Florida, and Cruz may not hold Trump below the 1,237-delegate majority. But give them credit for thinking seriously about the future.