Incrementalism works for the Left. It doesn’t work for the Right.
Unfortunately, that is not the working axiom for most within the Republican establishment who think instead that incrementalism is the only legislative route for the Right. They will point to a Ted Kennedy, and all the incremental leftward compromises made over the years as our model for rightward movement. But it’s this strategic disagreement that separates the intrepid new reformers from the old hands within the Republican party—on how far and fast to push on virtually every issue.
The fundamental problem with incrementalism is that you can never win the argument, because you never set out to have a debate on principle.
Instead, the debate is always about making some federal program run a little better or cost a little less. It is never about the underlying benefit or activity being fundamentally inconsistent with a limited government or the Constitution. No matter how common sense the reform, the Left immediately demonizes the effort as a “cut,” either scaring the reformers to the sidelines or sparking the same ideological firefight that the reformers were trying to avoid. The reformers get caught unprepared to argue on principle, and the proposed reform itself then proves to be well south of the herculean political effort needed to get it signed into law.
Consider the “farm” bill just passed out of the House Agriculture Committee.
Its $957 billion over ten years. The last farm bill in 2008 was $604 billion over ten years—a 63% increase. 80% of the bill is now food stamp funding. This is because there are now 46 million individuals on food stamps, compared with 17 million in 2000 and 30 million in 2008 respectively. 1 out of every 7 Americans are on food stamps. Chairman Frank Lucas is proposing to tweak the program to save just $16 billion or 2%. The Left is predictably freaking out. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities claims that the, “Lucas-Peterson proposed farm bill would throw 2 to 3 million people off” food stamps. Assistant Democrat Leader James Clyburn is calling the reforms “an abomination.” This freakout will inevitably result in some compromise that is even more worthless.
This is not the approach that you would take if you were, say, trying to drastically roll back the welfare state. You would take a much harder line. You would break up the food stamp portion from the commodity portion. You would go back to pre-Obama or pre-Bush levels and block grant the program (surely the nation can exist on the same food stamp levels enjoyed by the Clinton Administration, no?). You would be proposing a work requirement for the food stamp program. You might bring back the paper stamps and discontinue the EBT system. In other words, you would force a real debate about food stamps and dependency in America—about what we can afford given our fiscal situation and how to get people off of welfare for their and our benefit.
The nation cannot afford a nearly trillion farm-food welfare bill, and the House of Representatives should stop its consideration of the bill. But the larger lesson for the Republican political class is to understand that this incrementalism leads to a fundamental distrust between them and the conservative faithful that are out there giving their time and treasure to get them elected. This incrementalism communicates that Republicans don’t actually want to roll back the liberal welfare state, either because its too hard or because it benefits them politically. Compromise is not the issue—it’s the low expectations that lead to worthless compromises.
The Left knows that government grows even when they are out of office (in part because of this incrementalism on the Right). When they are in office, they use their power to accelerate that growth, even at the cost of political power. Obamacare is the perfect example of that, but so was the unpopular cap-and-trade legislation that was attempted.
They have the time for this long game. We don’t.
*Of course, there may be many who read this post and point to Burke. It’s worth a longer discussion, but Edmund Burke was trying to preserve the institutions in society, such as the family and religion, from which ordered liberty springs forth. The fact is that we now have a modern bureaucratic welfare state that destroys those very institutions on a daily, almost automatic basis. So much so, that it is now the Left who use Burke almost as a shield against today’s conservatives to protect the status quo.