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Forcing the Spring

By Charles Kesler

When Bill Clinton delivered his First Inaugural address in January 1993, he reached for a metaphor to describe the progress he was about to visit upon a country newly liberated from the Republican doldrums. His campaign had already run through quite a few such tropes and his presidency would soon exhaust more, ranging from '60s tunes like "Teach Your Children Well" and "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" to that famous bridge to the 21st century he was always building, or rather thinking about building.

Eschewing civil engineering on this occasion, however, Clinton turned for inspiration to, of all things, gardening. The metaphor he hit upon was "forcing the spring." This is a hothouse technique for forcing bulbs to germinate ahead of season. His plan was to accelerate the pace of politics, to override the natural tempo of political change. Modern American liberalism has always wanted to hurry us into the future, so that we won't have time to think if the future on offer is actually possible or not, desirable or not. Logically, after all, the imagined future may be possible but not desirable, desirable but not possible, or neither possible nor desirable--in addition to the combination that its proponents want to persuade you is the sole one, that the liberal future is eminently possible and desirable, so much so that it is almost inevitable.

Modern liberals, in other words, like to obscure the difference between change and improvement. Marketing executives like to instill the same confusion when they trumpet new needs and products. A change can be for better or worse. If you keep that in mind, you will be disposed to weigh proposed changes, to deliberate about their advantages and disadvantages. That will eventually make you a conservative, not in the prevailing political sense necessarily, but in the prudential sense of someone who wishes to preserve the goodness of existing arrangements against the changes (or so-called improvements) that actually make things worse, and sometimes even against real improvements whose attendant costs are too high.

Yet someone selling a handsome new cell phone would be happy if you thought his gewgaw better because it was new. At least the phone, however, is a real product that can be compared to existing models. The marketing department eventually has to answer to the market. Liberals, by contrast, are selling the future, a product that by definition is never in stock but soon to be shipped. If new is synonymous with better, and every change is an improvement, then next year's future is guaranteed to be better than this year's. In short, liberals don't want you to weigh proposed changes; they want you to embrace change.

Take, for example, the Democratic proposals for what is euphemistically called health care reform. In fact, their proposals have very little to do with improving the quality of medical care actually delivered in America's hospitals and doctors' offices, and very much to do with changing the control over medical spending and regulatory authority. The point is not to heal the halt and the lame but to tax those who already have health insurance to pay for those who don't. The point is not to make the blind see but to blind everyone to the increase in governmental power that will result from these prescriptions. This was clearer back in 1993, when the bulbs were sprouting early and Hillary Clinton was in charge of her husband's health care reform task force. As czarina of all health care, she planned in detail how the federal government would solve the "crisis." But the plan--and the crisis--fizzled when the details proved too much even for a Democratic Congress to swallow. She learned from her mistakes. Instead of using the plan to show the nature of the change needed, Hillary now trusts change to show the nature of the plan needed. The details will come later, after the country has agreed on the need for--change.

Or consider the debate over the Iraq War. The Democrats vow to end the "surge" and bring our troops home, or more likely to a place in the Middle East to be named later. For they know that the United States cannot afford to leave the region alone. Nonetheless, they call for Peace Now, hoping that change will bring respite. The Republicans are right to deny that the Democrats have a thought-through policy for Iraq. Hoping things get better is not a policy.

But the GOP has its own looming problem. Sticking with the surge buys time but little else. What comes after the surge? The answer is the 2008 elections, which the party will lose, and deserve to lose, if it doesn't separate itself from the administration's stand-pat case for the war. Are we there to make Iraq democratic, to protect our interest in regional stability regardless of whether Iraq is democratic, or to achieve victory (please describe) in the war on terrorism? None of the Republican presidential contenders has yet answered that question satisfactorily. It's not enough to reject the liberals' notion of change for change's sake. Conservatives have to prove that they can reason their way to an improved policy on Iraq, as on other issues. And they need to do so soon, before the primaries are over effectively in February or March. This is one time when it makes sense to force the spring.

Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow of The Claremont Institute and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. Respond to the author here.

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