He has to convince voters both that the economy was booming less than three years ago, when he and
were in charge, and that it’s now fallen into such a mess that we need Mr. Biden to come fix it. Whereas
in large part by asking voters to consider if they were better off than they were four years ago, Mr. Biden and the seemingly endless list of other candidates running for president would rather voters think about anything but the economy. Democrats want American voters for the next year and a half to be perpetually anxious that the end is imminent but can be staved off at the ballot box.
This is nothing new. Politicians like to warn voters that the current election is the most important one in their lifetimes. Though politicians—and some used car salesmen—can be forgiven for their over-the-top sales antics, many candidates actually believe their elections are critical to the fate of the republic, and that their opponents must lose for humanity to continue flourishing. Republicans, who persistently remind voters of the unique virtues of the Founding Fathers and the limited government they created, nonetheless constantly warn that the next Democrat’s election threatens to undo centuries of sacrifice.
Invoking a historic sense of urgency isn’t limited to election cycles. Progressives seem to be in a constant state of frenzy about the crisis of the hour. Without a moment to celebrate the decline of mass starvation and extreme poverty, they turned their attention to rising child obesity and income inequality. The decline in smog and air pollution coincided with a new focus on rising CO2 emissions. Global cooling was seamlessly replaced with the existential threat of global warming. The Supreme Court decision striking down state bans on gay marriage was immediately succeeded by legal wrangling over transgender rights, pronoun usage and bathroom access as the next great civil-rights fight.
Even recent hard-fought liberal victories aren’t safe, as the goal posts continually move the left. ObamaCare’s federally mandated coverage, combined with large subsidies, resulted in a lower uninsured rate, yet
et al. insist the exchanges, Medicare and all private health insurance be scrapped in favor of a fully state-run system. Mr. Biden’s previous legislative victories, like the 1994 crime bill promoting tougher sentences and increased funding for more police officers, are now the subjects of nasty fights in the Democratic primary race.
Politicians, especially liberal ones, see themselves as the central actors in a Great Man Theory of History, in which progress is credited to the deliberate actions of heroic and farsighted individuals. Libertarians are more sympathetic to the cumulative wisdom of crowds endowed with freedom, and of the quiet resilience and efficiency of bottom-up systems comprised of innumerable and dispersed small adjustments and innovations.
Like a rooster taking credit for the sun rising, Mr. Obama gladly took credit for reducing CO2 emissions while the economy grew. He preferred to ignore the fracking revolution that made natural gas more plentiful and affordable and thus displaced coal use and helped to reduce CO2 emissions. You can see why fracking didn’t excite Mr. Obama—increasing use of natural gas, and the continued use of zero-emissions nuclear energy, didn’t require the heroic leadership of liberal politicos. Mainly it required getting out of the way.
Politicians know their legacies will be burnished by grand gestures and not incremental reforms. Statues are built and schools renamed to honor those who boldly spend other people’s money. Besides, there is little downside for government overresponding; there is no real accounting for the blank check liberal politicians get from a sympathetic media. Nobody gets blamed for describing the crisis on the horizon and responding with a public emergency declaration, new health or education programs, or an elevated homeland threat level, even if the crisis proves illusory or impervious to the promised solutions.
Politicians get credit for trying to do something, but they’re usually out of office before the results can be measured. The failure of previous progressive reforms merely provides the rationale for the next round of government initiatives. The federal and state education departments are filled with decades of failed blue-ribbon reports on how to improve student performance, the one constant being that more government spending and intervention are required. The one lesson progressives never seem to learn is the futility of their previous interventions. No wonder Reagan (borrowing a line from South Carolina politician and judge James F. Byrnes) quipped the closest thing to eternal life on earth was a government program.
This is not to suggest the world—or America—is perfect. Yet voters should have confidence in the continued success of the American experiment despite, not because of, politicians. Political parties can hardly campaign on uninspiring pledges to keep government out of the way, tinker around the edges, and avoid screwing things up. But that is often what’s needed. The Founders had it right: The people can be trusted, and government is there to secure, not create, their rights.
Mr. Jindal served as governor of Louisiana, 2008-16, and was a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
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