For the last eighteen months, we’ve been engrossed in (and sometimes disgusted by) the minutiae of electoral politics, first through GOP primary, and then through the rough-and-tumble of the presidential campaign season. Tuesday’s election was important, to be sure. But we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that the fight for free enterprise and limited government isn’t about one horse race; it’s a long-term fight for key American values.
Where are we today? In effect, the same place we were on Monday: President Obama will continue for another four years, the Republicans keep the House of Representatives by a large margin, and the Democrats maintain a slim majority in the Senate. In other words, America will continue what has for much of the last generation become a tradition of divided government.
To be sure, this was a bitterly fought election, and Governor Romney and President Obama outlined sharply contrasting views of the future of the country–though with a divided congress and such a sharply split popular vote, it was unlikely that either would win the kind of mandate that, for instance, Ronald Reagan won in 1980.
With the legislature divided on party lines and a president holding only a tenuous mandate, we have a recipe for gridlock. Americans routinely tell pollsters that they detest gridlock and want the parties to reach across the aisle and work together. Many analysts suggest that it’s this partisan gridlock that is most responsible for Congress’ historically low approval ratings, which have hovered in or near the single digits for much of the past two years.
Gridlock today is especially corrosive because of the enormity of the challenges we face—and the urgency of solving our problems. Our national debt is higher than GDP, unfunded liabilities loom on the state and local level amounting to trillions of dollars, we have a culture of bailouts and subsidies without limiting principle, and our government consumes more and more of what the private economy produces.
Getting beyond gridlock, though, will require compromise. To some, this may sound like surrender. It need not be. For instance, pro-growth comprehensive tax reform that is revenue neutral (or even revenue reducing) can help grow the economy while decreasing the Byzantine complexity of America’s tax code. It may mean giving up some of the welfare transfers that the left loves and the deductions that the right loves; but each side will have to give up some sacred cows. It need not mean increasing tax rates of giving the government beast more sustenance.
But compromise on core principles is never acceptable. Ultimately, no compromise is worth making if it undermines free enterprise, allows the continued and unchecked expansion of the state, or furthers the notion that Washington can or should to pick economic winners and losers. In other words, we can build on truths shared between parties and ideologies on policy issues. But we cannot have compromise between the majority who support American free enterprise and the minority who wish to see it fail.
Finding common ground on policy while standing firm on principle is the grand political tradition of our republic. Our founders, who were greatly divided on the important policy questions of their day from tariffs to federalism, did not waver in their commitment to limited government and individual liberty. The moral covenant between government and the people established by the Declaration of Independence and reflected in the immortal phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was not up for negotiation.
Do not be lulled into complacency by those who suggest that our long-term fiscal imbalances are not real, or who say that plunging off the fiscal cliff somehow represents responsible policymaking. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road until we achieve some future Platonic congress. We have to begin this year to fix our unbalanced entitlements, enact a pro-growth economic agenda, and get spending in check. This will require overcoming gridlock, which means compromise on policy. But never on values.
That’s the long term battle facing America. And that’s the battle that we must recommit to today.
Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise