Parties must think again
It’s a time when both political parties should be assessing how their basic tenets square with reality, the Democrats in international affairs, the Republicans on economics.
Reacting to the excesses of his predecessor, President Obama has been less unilateral, more diplomatic and consultative, and less willing to use U.S. military power.
As others have observed, there isn’t a clear Obama doctrine in world affairs. Despite the president’s effort to draw a distinction between core interests we will defend unilaterally and more peripheral events where his threshold for involvement is higher, the fact that he’s still explaining his foreign-policy principles five and a half years in tells you something instructive.
This administration frequently seems caught off guard by foreign-policy developments and resorts to formulating policy on the fly more than is usual even in the murkiness of international events.
Some critics — the most articulate among them being Robert Kagan, in his much discussed New Republic article “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire” — argue that the unpredictability of Obama’s foreign policy creates doubts about U.S. resolve, encourages risk-taking by ambitious rivals or bad actors, and thus makes the world a more dangerous place.
It’s more than a little ironic to see Dick Cheney criticizing Obama’s foreign policy, given his own leading role in the last administration’s reign of error. And yet, when Hillary Clinton notes that she argued early on for arming some rebels in Syria and against setting a timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan, and is open to keeping a larger residual force there, you know that the debate over the proper level of U.S. engagement is real, important, and continuing.
Now for the Republicans, whose economic theories have taken a real-world beating. Remember when conservatives held that financial-sector regulation could and should be light because risk made rational actors like financial institutions self-regulating? Alan Greenspan, the Delphic oracle of neoclassical economics, has conceded that that’s a paradigm lost, one whose collapse left him “in a state of shocked disbelief.” And yet, congressional Republicans still portray increased financial-sector regulation as an unjustified drag on the economy.
Recall the repeated assertion that tax hikes on upper earners would derail the recovery? Well, higher income and capital-gains taxes took effect in early January of 2013. The recovery hasn’t stalled. In fact, we’ve now seen five straight months with job growth in excess of 200,000. And we’ve now recovered all the jobs lost in the Great Recession.
Among the public, the feeling that the rich should pay more in taxes is on the rise, even among the wealthy, which is bad news for the supply-side notion that a rising tide triggered by lower marginal rates on the investment class will lift all boats. Meanwhile, economist Thomas Piketty has laid the intellectual foundation for more liberal fiscal policy by demonstrating the way modern wealth concentrates due to the larger returns that flow to unearned income.
As when it comes to tax policy, these days you can fit the economists who believe that income tax cuts will pay for themselves into a Smart car.
Then there’s conservatism’s bad short-term tactical bet: That the public will grow so disenchanted with the Affordable Care Act that they will want it repealed.
Now, parties generally don’t adjust doctrines in mid-term mid-stream. When they occur, those shifts usually come from the clash of ideas during presidential primary campaigns, with the eventual winner setting the party’s new course.
So what are the odds for evolution and correction?
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has already signaled that if she runs for president, she’ll advocate a different kind of foreign policy, with more rigorous engagement and greater staying power.
Among Republicans, some young intellectuals are pushing new policies, if not necessarily new theories. But so far, there’s little evidence the larger party is ready to rethink its economic world view. And with the Republican mainstream and the Tea Party engaged in a civil war, there’s been little space for reconsideration or recalibration.
Perhaps that will change in the presidential primary cycle. But the GOP we see today looks more like an entrenched opposition dug into regional and gerrymandered strongholds than a party on its way to developing a winning message for the country as a whole.
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for The Boston Globe.