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Age of malaise, diminished expectations

To understand the broader trends at work, a useful place to turn is Jay Cost's essay on "The Politics of Loss" in the latest issue of National Affairs. For most of the post-World War II era, Cost argues, our debates over taxing and spending have taken place in an atmosphere of surplus. The operative question has been how best to divide a growing pie, which has enabled politicians in both parties to practice a kind of ideologically flexible profligacy. Republicans from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush have increased spending, Democrats from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton have found ways to cut taxes, and the great American growth machine has largely kept the toughest choices off the table.

But not anymore. Between our slowing growth and our unsustainable spending commitments, "the days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over; the politics of deciding who loses what, and when and how, is upon us." In this era, debates will be increasingly zero-sum, bipartisan compromise will be increasingly difficult, and "the rules and norms of our politics that several generations have taken for granted" will fade away into irrelevance.

-- Douthat

A similar story could be told about Barack Obama's Washington, in which a temporarily ascendant Democratic Party pushed through sweeping spending bills and social-compact altering health care legislation before unprecedented Republican obstructionism ground the process to a halt. In fact, it's useful to think of Obama's stimulus bill and Walker's budget repair bill as mirror image exercises in legislative shock and awe, and the Tea Party and the Wisconsin labor protests as mirror images of backlash.

At both the state and national level, then, the two coalitions are aiming for a mix of daring on offense, fortitude on defense and ruthless counterattacks whenever possible. The goal is to simultaneously maximize the opportunities presented to one's own side and punish the other party for trying to do the same.


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