Conservatives have good reasons to worry about the outcome of the 2008 presidential race, political analyst George Will warned a John Locke Foundation audience five days before the Michigan primary.
“The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, is that we are looking at a tsunami,” Will told more than 200 people at JLF’s 18th anniversary celebration Thursday night at the Charlotte Westin. “If the Democrats can’t win the presidency this year, they have to get out of politics.”
“I mean it is not being insulting to our president to just acknowledge the fact that it is not the 22nd Amendment that’s preventing him from seeking a third term,” said Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Newsweek contributing editor, network television analyst, and syndicated columnist whose work appears regularly in 480 newspapers. “He must feel like Herbert Hoover did when in 1932, on the eve of the Roosevelt landslide that swept him out of office, a disgruntled voter sent Hoover a telegram that said: ‘Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous.’”
Will said he thinks Democrats will choose Illinois Sen. Barack Obama over N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton as the party’s 2008 presidential nominee. “I think he’d be better for the country, and a Clinton restoration is just too weird-sounding.”
The Republican picture is not as clear, Will said. “[Rudy] Giuliani is testing a theory about how to compete in the primaries, and we’re going to see if he’s right,” Will said. “I think [Mitt] Romney would be an excellent president. He just doesn’t connect with the voters so far. And Mr. [John] McCain is an acquired taste.”
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions constitute “the worst law passed in my lifetime,” Will said. “It is, however, arguable that McCain is the front-runner, and it is arguable that McCain would be the strongest candidate against either of those two Democrats,” he said. “Some of us will have to decide how badly we want to win.”
Will offered advice to the one Republican candidate with extensive business experience. “If I were Romney, the one candidate who actually knows how wealth is created in this country because he’s done it … I would say a simple question: Who do you want to be president in 2010 when the Bush tax cuts expire? It’s a simple question, and it will concentrate people’s minds.”
Regardless of campaign strategies, all normal indicators point toward a Democratic presidency, Will said. “Seventy-two percent of the country says the country is on the wrong track,” he said. “Fifty-seven percent of the American people say we are already in a recession.”
Recent American history also points to a change in the president’s political party, Will said. “Since the Second World War, only once — George Herbert Walker Bush — has a party extended from two to three consecutive terms in the White House.”
Republicans also have a geographic problem, Will said. “Republicans who for years have been saying they have wonderful strength in the South, now have a problem in the North,” he said. “When New Hampshire shifted [in 2004] and voted for John Kerry, it gave the Democrats all 37 electoral votes from New England. There are 22 congressional seats in New England. Twenty-one of them are Democratic.”
In 2000, George W. Bush became the first president in history to win the presidency without carrying a majority of Northern electoral votes, Will said. Bush won re-election in 2004 only because he earned a narrow victory in Ohio. “Ohio was the only large state outside the South that he carried.”
Those geographical facts have been good for Republicans in recent years, Will said. The GOP has dominated 173 electoral votes in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, plus Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Republican success in Western states has forced Democrats to focus on just 19 states that can give them enough electoral votes to win. “That is a recipe for being up late on election night staring at the state of Ohio with tears running down your cheeks, which is exactly what happened to John Kerry.”
Now there’s a new competitiveness, Will said. “Democrats are meeting this year in Denver,” he said. “They’re convening in Denver because the Mountain West — which in the 1990s was even more reliably Republican than the South was — the Mountain West is not so any more.”
Today five of the eight Mountain West states have Democratic governors, compared to zero Democratic governors five years ago, Will said. “A change of 65,000 votes combined in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado would have made John Kerry president.”
“The competitiveness is growing, and the Republicans are decreasingly competitive outside the South,” he said. “This is why some of us find Gov. [Mike] Huckabee so alarming, in addition to his alarming views. [If nominated] he would reinforce the image of the Republican Party as a Southern party with almost a religious test — certainly a religious pretension — that a good many people all over the country, including in the South, find disturbing.
“All of this is why I say it behooves us well to understand that the Republicans who are now voting to select a nominee hope they are picking a president, but president or not they’re picking someone the choice of whom will define what their party still considers important. So this choice matters independently of what happens Nov. 4.”
Republican presidential candidates are avoiding some important topics that will have major impacts on the nation’s future, Will said. “It is directly pertinent to the mission of the John Locke Foundation, that is strengthening the idea of an entrepreneurial society, with light government, valuing freedom and energy and individual responsibility.”
Among the issues candidates are ignoring is the growing burden of federal entitlement programs, Will said. The federal government spends an additional $193 million on entitlements every hour, and Jan. 1 marked the beginning of a “demographic deluge” tied to the pending retirements of 77 million baby boomers, he said.
“Most Americans who collect Social Security begin collecting it at age 62,” Will said. “That is, in my judgment, not just preposterous but bordering on obscene. The largest entitlement in the mind of the American people today is an entitlement to be publicly subsidized by a regressive transfer of wealth from the working young in their family-forming, house-buying period to the retired elderly, the most affluent cohort in the country.”
“It’s astonishing,” he said. “What people are not talking about in this presidential race which they must talk about sooner or later is the demographic destiny of the welfare state in the context of an aging population.”
Changing American attitudes are creating new challenges for the welfare state, Will said. “An assumption that Americans have shared for two centuries is now in doubt,” he said. “The assumption has been that the very process that produces increased wealth would also produce increased family and individual security. Today more and more Americans believe that the very process — a dynamic market economy — that produces increased wealth subverts individual and family security.”
“This matters because we have made a bargain: We have decided we want a welfare state,” Will said. “That’s not an open question in America any more. But having made that choice we have to make a second choice. We have to have a rapid rate of economic growth that will throw off revenue to pay the bill. In order to have that rapid rate of economic growth, we have to have low taxation and light regulations.”
While the welfare state requires the rapid economic growth of a market economy, it also “breeds a flinching from the insecurities and the uncertainties” of a market-based society, Will said. That means some people demand government security against the dynamic economy the welfare state requires.
“This is a very unusual crisis,” he said. “It doesn’t come — as 9/11 did — as a bolt from the blue. The crisis we have, the demographic crisis of a welfare state with an aging population, is utterly predictable. There are no surprises, including — I’m sorry to say — that there are no surprises in the fact that the government will not address it. Neither do any of the political candidates this year.”
While presidential candidates are avoiding some important issues, they are also avoiding some bad ideas that could have major negative consequences, Will said. “No one running for president this year — no one, not even Mr. [John] Edwards — no one running for president says, ‘I have a bright idea.’” Will said. “‘Let’s repeal the emblematic achievement of the 1980s: the Reagan tax cuts. Let’s go back then to 70 percent marginal tax rates.’ No one says that.”
No candidates are calling for repeal of welfare reform, the “emblematic achievement” of the 1990s, Will said. “The American people still understand what Milton Friedman meant when he said take any three letters of the alphabet — it doesn’t matter, pick three at random — put them in any order you want, it doesn’t matter — you will have an acronym designating a federal agency we can do without.”
“People still understand what Ronald Reagan meant when he said, ‘I do not want to go back to the past; I want to go back to the past way of facing the future,’” Will said. “And they understand most importantly what Robert Frost meant when he said, ‘I do not want to live in a homogenized society. I want the cream to rise.’ That is, after all, the point of freedom.”
Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.