Being Right Doesn't Always Win Elections


At the Grand Forks Herald, opinion editor Tom Dennis uses the occasion of President Obama’s second-term inauguration to argue that Republicans haven’t been winning a lot of elections of late because they aren’t sufficiently caring. After referencing one of Scott Hennen’s columns here on SAB, Dennis writes that the problem with Republicans is that we have to little compassion as measured by support for hugely expensive social programs.

Simply put, the GOP’s dream of an unfettered free market not one that most Americans really want to come true. That’s because while capitalism creates great numbers of winners, it also creates whole armies of losers — and often within one person’s own lifetime, given the ease with which, say, medical emergencies or just the onset of old age can vaporize a lifetime’s savings.

Sure, the logical response is for people to plan — to buy health insurance, sock money away in 401(k)s and so on. And most people will try to do just that.

But many of them will fail, human nature and life’s uncertainties being what they are. Moreover, many others never will amass the resources even to try. (It’s a lot easier to talk about overcoming a disadvantaged childhood than it is to do it.)

What happens to them? What happens to the people who lose at life’s game — and that includes most Americans once they reach their 80s and 90s?

Since the 1930s, our country has answered those questions this way: We Americans want a floor beneath which no one will fall. Charity isn’t enough to build it, as life in the 1920s and earlier proved. But government is; so, let’s work together to get the job done.

That’s a pretty sentiment, to be sure, and this conservative could buy into it, if it weren’t for that pesky reality of cost.

In 2011 Social Security, Medicare and other mandatory social spending (as well as the interest we must pay on our national debt) added up to $2.25 trillion, or roughly 62% of our national budget.


That same year, total federal tax receipts were $2.3 trillion. Which means that we’re pretty much already in deficit spending territory before we can even start talking about everything else the federal government does, from the military to national parks.


Compassion is all well and good, but then there is this other thing called “math.” Are conservatives losing elections because the public doesn’t see them as sufficiently compassionate? I think that’s probably true for the time being (though the gloaters should keep in mind that these things tend to be cyclical). But does that mean conservatives are wrong to point out what we can’t afford?

Unfortunately, being right doesn’t always win you elections.

How compassionate is it to sentence future generations of Americans to unpayable levels of debt so that current generations of Americans can enjoy a cushy platform of social entitlements? Will our children and grandchildren be happy with this political death pact we seem to have made with Social Security and Medicare when those two programs sink into insolvency, leaving them with nothing but the debt?

“But we can tweak the programs!” Dennis and others might respond. Sure, we can make Americans pay more into them while giving them even less back. Does that sound appealing? And remember, roughly 15% of the wages paid to every American worker (both the employee and employer shares) is already going to these programs.

Social spending in America is out of control, but for the time being anyone who talks about that will be called cold and uncaring and exiled to the political margins for raining on the entitlement parade. But one day, there will have to be a reckoning, because the path we’re on is unsustainable.