The Season of Our Discontent

Party politics seems only to frustrate the citizenry.

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Americans — never more affluent or privileged — are in a gloomy mood.

Take energy. The current average cost of gasoline, $2.85 a gallon, is still less, when adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1981. But what is different today is that the relatively sudden surge in gas prices is assumed to be no mere spike.

Instead the spiraling price seems like something permanent that could grow even higher as known world reserves decline. And it is made worse by our voracious consumption and the entry of China and India into the global energy market.

In response to Americans’ anxiety over energy and other, sometimes real, sometimes perceived problems, we are witnessing ideological stubbornness and inconsistency from both sides of the political aisle.

Conservatives, for example, are trying to block upping automobile fuel-efficiency standards, hoping the market will adjudicate any waste of energy. When the price of gas gets too high, strapped consumers, conservatives argue, will choose not to buy SUVs and monster pickups.

For their own part, liberals concede that nuclear-powered electrical generation plants won’t contribute to global warming. And these plants now run as cheaply as burning natural gas and keep energy dollars here at home.

But here, as with their opposition to petroleum drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or off the nation’s coasts, the environmentally orthodox are straitjacketed by ideology — dreaming that new-tech alternate energy and conservation can alone lower costs and keep petro-dollars out of the hands of unstable Middle East regimes.

These conservative and liberal fantasies also paralyze solutions to budget deficits.

True, Republican-endorsed tax cuts have led to more net federal revenue in 2005 than in 2001. Yet — even with the unanticipated costs of the 9/11 attack, the ongoing war and Hurricane Katrina — if the Bush administration had kept entitlement spending to Bill Clinton’s levels (with small increases for inflation), we would today have a balanced budget and a small surplus.

Instead, 2001-2005 marked the wildest growth in nondiscretionary domestic outlay in our recent history. Even with an expanding economy, vast amounts of new federal income could not keep pace with even more vast expenditures.

So the valid Republican supply-side argument that tax cuts create more revenue meant little in balancing the budget. Equally irrelevant was the “starve the beast” notion that tax cuts would necessitate mandatory budgetary discipline — especially when many so-called conservative legislators proved fond of pork-barrel spending.

Now we are told by some free-marketers that a $400 billion annual budget deficit doesn’t matter much — ignoring even the psychological depression that such borrowing does to a once-confident citizenry.

The Democrats, for their part, won’t re-examine entitlement programs to ascertain which are not working or even counterproductive, such as agricultural and many education subsidies. Apparently, Democrats’ future answer for the mounting debt will be the old calculus of substantial cuts in the military (at a time of war) and new tax hikes (that may cool the economy).

The same public pessimism applies to Iraq. Supporters of the war point to the steady growth of Iraqi security forces, and that the schedule of continual elections and constitutional reform remains uninterrupted. Since the removal of Saddam Hussein, there has been no 9/11-like attack in the U.S., while there have been positive changes in Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. Plus, in polls, the majority of Iraqis say they hope the U.S. stays and finishes the job.

Critics discount that good news and cite the nearly 2,000 U.S. fatalities, thousands more wounded, billions of dollars spent and near-daily news of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

In response, some impatient conservatives wish to attack Syria and Iran to thwart their support for jihadists crossing into Iraq — even though there is no support for widening the war.

Some liberals want an immediate withdrawal, even though doing so would hand over to the terrorists what they can’t win on the battlefield. The only viable solution — staying the course — does not satisfy those demanding either much more or much less.

In sheer numbers, more people are working than at any time in our history. Home ownership is at record levels. We haven’t been attacked in more than four years. And yet even low unemployment, low inflation and low interest rates have not brought the public a sense of calm, given the worry over energy costs, national debt and the war abroad.

Usually such angst — less than half the population expresses confidence in the administration — would lead to the opposition’s advantage. It hasn’t, as the Democrats are offering no systematic alternative to meet the growing anguish.

And the fatalism of a normally can-do public grows. Voters no longer trust once tight-fisted Republicans to balance the budget, while the old war party of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy is no longer credible on national security. The voters want to both expand traditional domestic energy sources and to curtail consumption, but the two horn-locked parties see these solutions as either/or rather than compatible.

The result of this petrified leadership is that while things are not nearly as bad as they seem, the public in its frustration feels they are far worse.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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