All of a sudden, this election is shaping up as a verdict on capitalism. The Obama campaign wanted it to be about George W. Bush. The McCain campaign wanted it to be about character. But instead, because the markets are shooting off in all directions like bullets from a dropped pistol, the stakes have suddenly been raised dramatically.
We are in the midst of the worst panic in history, it's true (because it is global). But as historian John Steele Gordon helpfully pointed on in the Wall Street Journal, panics are not unusual in American history. We've experienced them almost every 20 years since 1819. Gordon blames Thomas Jefferson, which is intriguing, but the point is that we've always emerged from these periodic paroxysms intact and our economy has continued to grow. Gordon believes more sensible banking policy would prevent future panics. But if we elect a crypto-socialist like Barack Obama and give him a bigger Democrat majority in the House and a filibuster-proof Senate, banking regulation may be the least of our troubles.
Well, you may say, "Win some, lose some. McCain isn't all that great anyway. Conservatives and Republicans will simply have to examine their consciences and come up with a winning strategy for next time." Perhaps. But there are a few problems with that sanguine approach.
In the first place, the Democrats can, with a super-majority, change the rules of the game. They can make the District of Columbia the 51st state with two new senators (guaranteed to be Democrats in perpetuity). They can reinstitute the so-called Fairness Doctrine that required radio stations to provide equal time to all political viewpoints. While the doctrine was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, radio stations shied away from politics altogether. With the demise of the doctrine, conservative talk radio flourished. Liberal talk radio has never found much of an audience. Reviving the doctrine would kill one of the principal irritants to liberals and Democrats -- to say nothing of disemboweling the First Amendment.
Obama has a million schemes to redistribute the wealth of the top 5 percent, (who by the way, already pay more than 50 percent of the taxes in our steeply progressive system). He wants to provide college for "anyone who wants to go and agrees to perform community service," and community development block grants, and childcare, and universal pre-school, and housing, and retirement and on and on. He seems determined that more people will ride in the wagon than pull it.
Finally, there is a one-way ratchet in public policy. Liberal reforms are never undone. How hard have conservatives tried to eliminate the Department of Education or subsidies to public television? Would they have more success uncreating a new nationalized health care system?
An Obama/Pelosi/Reid regime -- if it were to get a filibuster-proof majority -- will certainly be able to shift the country's direction sharply to the left. The only question is -- would the shift be permanent?