Some 45 years ago, an Englishman and one of the era’s great wits and finest writers, Malcolm Muggeridge, used to write about the liberal death wish.
He saw the death wish at work everywhere. In the liberals’ appeasement of the Soviets, he saw it. In liberals’ extravagant extension of the welfare state, he saw it. For a certitude, he was right. The liberals of the day died off and were replaced by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and by Ronald Reagan in America. Not much was heard from the left for years until Tony Blair and Bill Clinton came along, and both men’s liberalism was greatly truncated.
The liberal death wish was Muggeridge’s true insight, but by the 1980s, the death wish had only killed off the liberals. The rest of us escaped. The West managed to overcome the liberals’ instrumentalities of death. In the Cold War, President Reagan’s military buildup, contrary to those who said it was reckless and dangerous, managed to practically bankrupt the Soviet Union. The liberals had many a good laugh at his “Star Wars” project, but the Soviet generals were not laughing. They saw “Star Wars” as causing them one more futile expenditure on their road to ruin. As far as domestic policy goes, Western prosperity — in America goaded by tax cuts — allowed us to continue the extravagance of the welfare state, though just barely. The excessive costs of the project continued. Nicholas Eberstadt in a thoughtful essay for The Weekly Standard calculates that from the Great Society on we have spent $1 trillion on anti-poverty programs, and the poverty level is about where it was in 1966.
With the Obama administration, the spending on anti-poverty programs — and on much else — has multiplied. The government regulation — for instance, Dodd-Frank — has been onerous. The result is the weakest recovery on record in modern times. In foreign policy, President Obama continues to lead from behind, or just around the corner, or not even lead at all, as he lectured us from West Point last week. With this disastrous administration, we have again returned to the liberal death wish, and it threatens all of us.
In domestic policy, Mr. Obama entered office facing unsustainable budget deficits, and his answer was Obamacare, the largest, most extravagant, most mishandled expense in American history. In foreign policy, he has botched two wars. With Russia, he has a simulacrum of the Cold War going on. He just freed five terrorist chieftains in exchange for what turned out to be an Army deserter. This is the liberal death wish with no Thatcher or Reagan standing in the wings.
Yet I would counsel once again optimism. This current liberal death wish, as with the last liberal death wish, will probably only finish off the left. Just this past week, with Mr. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency regulations afflicting energy-producing states and turning them toward the Republicans in the fall elections, I think we can foresee Republican domination of both houses. That, along with Republican domination of most states, will make it difficult for Mr. Obama to extend his mischief. Then in 2016, it is up to Republicans to find a suitable replacement for Reagan and win the White House.
Still, in light of what happened to the left liberals the last time that they were tempted by a death wish, one has to wonder why they would try again. Arguably, they were out of office from 1981 until 2009. Sure, Bill Clinton is claiming he was with them all the way in the 1990s, but obviously, it is another of his multitudinous lies. Is he not the fellow who asseverated in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over”? Did not Newt Gingrich see to it that it was? I say that this time, the era of big government will be over for years to come. Possibly, the left will go the way of the dinosaurs. Our president, when he passes to glory, will be put in a museum.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of the American Spectator, a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the author of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).