To listen to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address is to journey with Alice through the looking glass. You would think we have lived through record deficit reduction but not record deficits, that past federal spending was restrained and new spending can be afforded easily.
But the speeches that came afterward painted a somewhat different picture. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, delivering the official Republican response, noted that it wouldn’t be the millionaires and billionaires who would lose their jobs or be denied their raises as a result of tax increases.
“So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Rubio then turned to the spending programs that are the main drivers of the long-term debt.
“I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother,” the senator from the retiree-heavy state remarked. “But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it.”
This last point bears repeating. Defending the status quo on entitlements based on the programs’ past accomplishments is like praising General Motors’ 1950s pay and benefits while the company was going under in 2009.
GM got a taxpayer bailout. Who will bail out the federal government?
According to recent projections, Medicare’s largest trust fund will be flush with red ink beginning in 2024, a little more than a decade from now. Social Security is expected to start having difficulty funding its current obligations in 2033, three years earlier than anticipated as recently as 2011.
The window for making changes without affecting Americans at or near retirement age is closing. The Congressional Budget Office projects that over the next decade Social Security spending will rise 62 percent while mandatory health care spending will climb 94 percent.
In his tea party response to Obama, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul went a step further. Chastising bipartisan hand-wringing over the sequester (a creation of both parties), Paul noted, “Even with the sequester, government will grow $7 trillion over the next decade. Only in Washington can an increase of $7 trillion in spending be called a cut.”
Paul then called for a “new bipartisan consensus,” challenging Democrats to “admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred” and Republicans to “realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”
By the end of his speech, he expanded his critique of unrestrained government spending to include unrestrained government spying, wiretapping, and killing.
No more situational constitutionalism.
It’s a stark choice between two visions. One where debt doesn’t matter, where gargantuan government programs can be fixed with only the most minor tweaks, and where more spending will stimulate the economy enough to reduce the deficit, versus another where the Constitution and the basic rules of math still apply.
The major television networks didn’t bother to show Rand Paul’s speech. After Marco Rubio’s, the mainstream media coverage focused on the senator sipping water more than his ideas about the proper size of government.
Washington still has politicians in both parties pushing big government. The rest of the country is filled with millions of voters demanding it.
Even as the national debt threatens to explode to $20 trillion, as the federal government’s unfunded liabilities soar, the constituency for big government remains intact. Some of the country’s brightest liberal journalists, academics, and economists are living in debt denial. Paul Krugman is perhaps one of the most prominent examples.
They promise the American people that the spending can be never-ending. (Though at least Krugman is honest enough to acknowledge that the spending won’t be free.)
But Tuesday night’s speeches by Rubio and Paul, however little watched, offered hope, however faint, for a real limited government party in this country.
It’s time to finish the argument Goldwater and Reagan started.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.