Ramesh Ponnuru: Why ambitious ideas always backfire politically

04/17/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 5:55 PM

Americans say they want politicians to tackle the big issues and get things done. In 2008, they even elected a presidential candidate who said he was interested in “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

Yet almost every time elected officials have tried bold problem-solving in the past 20 years, it has produced a backlash against them. The more ambitious the attempt, the worse the political repercussions have been.

The pattern has persisted now through three administrations. President Clinton’s attempt to ban assault weapons succeeded, and his attempt to reform health care failed; both of them contributed to his party’s loss of the House and Senate in 1994.

President George W. Bush’s ambitious initiatives also backfired. The education reform called No Child Left Behind, although it passed on a bipartisan vote, became unpopular as parents blamed it for schools’ “teaching to the test.” Bush’s attempt to make Social Security solvent arrested any momentum he had after his re-election. And a lot of the Congress members who voted for the 2008 legislation that rescued the financial system now probably wish they could have done it by secret ballot.

The two most important pieces of legislation to be proposed under President Obama – the 2009 fiscal stimulus and the 2010 health care law – both passed but got mostly negative reviews. The health law seems to have cost the Democrats seats in 2010 and may again this fall.

There have been exceptions to the rule under each president. Bush’s tax cuts and Obama’s financial regulations don’t appear to have either helped or hurt the politicians behind them very much. And both welfare reform under Clinton and a prescription-drug benefit for seniors under Bush actually paid off politically.

The successful cases are instructive. In both, a president was playing on the other side’s turf: scaling back an entitlement in the Democrat’s case and expanding one in the Republican’s. And in both cases some of the political benefit was merely the avoidance of pain. When Bush ran for president, for example, he had to endorse the popular Democratic proposal for a prescription-drug benefit, and not delivering on his promise would have hindered his re-election.

The British politician Enoch Powell once remarked that “in the welfare state not to take away is more blessed than to give.” In the 1960s, it may have been possible for a politician to offer voters benefits, seemingly for free, and rise in the polls as a result. But the sense that our government is now overextended may have made such expansion seem less feasible without making retrenchment appealing. People are markedly unhappy with the status quo, but they’re even more fearful of what might take its place.

That’s a coherent set of attitudes built on distrust for the political class in Washington, D.C. If voters think politicians have made a lot of messes, they may presume that their solutions will only make things worse. That kind of skepticism is recognizably conservative, but it isn’t ideologically conservative. It creates a high hurdle for ambitious free-market and limited-government reforms just as much as for liberal ones.

Whatever the explanation for this legislative curse, it must have something to do with how frequently power has gone back and forth between the parties over the past two decades. It also helps explain the fond memories people have of Clinton’s presidency.

Americans think better of Clinton’s time in office than they do of either Bush’s or Obama’s. In part that’s because the 1990s were a time of relative peace and prosperity. Perhaps it’s also because Clinton’s health care law failed and he undertook no grand initiatives during the six years he governed with Congress under opposition control. He came back from the 1994 congressional defeats by blocking the Republicans’ big plans and undertaking small-scale efforts, such as encouraging public schools to adopt uniforms.

George Will of the Washington Post called Clinton the least consequential president since Calvin Coolidge, the difference being that the latter was inconsequential by design. When Bush ran to replace Clinton, he scorned his predecessor’s lowered ambitions. “So much promise, to no great purpose,” was one of his refrains about Clinton at the Republican convention in 2000. Bush famously derided “small-ball” politics.

But maybe in our era small ball is what people like. If so, then activists with more far-reaching agendas will have to resign themselves to advancing them in small bits. And people considering running for office should know that politics, for the foreseeable future, is probably not going to be much fun.

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