I rarely agree with conservative columnist Fred Barnes, who I generally consider to be too pro-Bush and too much of a big government conservative. But I think he is right to warn of a major potential surge to the left after Barack Obama wins today (as is highly likely). As Barnes points out, Obama will likely have a relatively free hand in greatly expanding government. Not only will he be working with a strongly Democratic Congress, but congressional Democrats themselves have become much more uniformly liberal over the last 15 to 20 years. As a result, there are few moderate and conservative Democrats left, of the sort who forced moderation on Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in 1993-94:
Democrats had large majorities when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 (61-38 in the Senate, 292-143 in the House) and when Bill Clinton took office in 1993 (56-44, 258-176). So why are their prospects for legislative success so much better now?
The most significant change is in the ideological makeup of the Democratic majorities. In the Carter and Clinton eras, there were dozens of moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress, a disproportionate number of them committee chairs. Now the Democratic majorities in both houses are composed almost uniformly of liberals....
In the past, senior Democrats intervened to prevent a liberal onslaught. Along with Republicans, they stopped President Carter from implementing his plan to pull American troops out of South Korea.
They forced him to accept a cut in the tax rate on capital gains and an increase in defense spending. A bloc of Democrats also helped kill a bill designed to broaden picketing rights and a labor-law reform measure to strengthen labor's hand in organizing and negotiating with employers, the top priorities of organized labor in the 1970s.
With President Clinton in the White House, the chief goal of liberals was passage of national health-care legislation. Success seemed likely until numerous Democrats balked, including the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
There are no strong-minded liberal renegades such as Moynihan in Congress now, and few Democrats inclined, much less willing, to question liberal dogma. And most committee chairs in the Senate and House are liberals.
I would add a few points to Barnes' analysis. First, if the potential expansion of government under Obama is big enough to worry Barnes (a man who has been urging Republicans to downplay size of government issues since at least 1990), it should be of even greater concern to those of us who care about the size and scope of government far more than he does.
Second, the Democrat's opportunity to expand government will be heightened by the presence of an economic crisis. As I have argued here time and again, crises often facilitate the expansion of state power.
Third, as Barnes notes, a number of new Democratic "moderates" were elected in 2006 and some will be this year as well. However, unlike the moderate Democrats of yesteryear, most of these people are economic populists, such as Virginia's Jim Webb, whose views are analyzed in this essay by my colleague Craig Lerner. In many ways, these people are even more hostile to free markets than traditional liberals such as Obama; for example, most of them are far more protectionist than he is. Their "moderation," such as it is, lies in the fact that they have a social conservative streak. That might cause Obama some trouble if he, for example, tries to expand gay rights, as Bill Clinton did. But the "moderates" welcome his big government economic agenda. And it is the latter that Obama seems to want to focus on. From a libertarian point of view, the new breed of "moderate" Democrats are actually worse than either traditional liberals (who at least favor personal freedoms if not "economic" ones) or earlier Democratic moderates (who often restrained party liberals on economic policy).
UPDATE: I should mention that I agree with many, but not all of Barnes' other points. For example, I don't buy his claim that the Democrat's left-wing agenda will be facilitated by a media more liberal than it was in the past. While the majority of the media is still liberal, the rise of a variety of new conservative media over the least 15 years ensures that that liberal dominance is weaker than before.
UPDATE #2: Various commenters on this and previous related posts claim that I am somehow ignoring the Republicans' own recent record of big government policies. Since I have repeatedly criticized Bush's "big government conservatism" for as long as I have been on the VC (see this May 2006 post, for my earliest statement on this subject, just a few weeks after I joined this blog), the charge is off-base. Even more importantly, the Republican's poor record does not make Obama's agenda any less dangerous. He doesn't propose to roll back any of the Republicans' big government economic policies. He proposes to leave virtually all of them in place and then expand government still further - much further. In addition, Bush's big government conservatism was in large part made possible by united government from 2001 to 2007. Obama's agenda, similarly, is likely to be facilitated by strong and very liberal Democratic majorities in Congress. As a general rule, divided government impedes the growth of the state, while united government facilitates it. I very much doubt that an Obama Administration will be an exception to this rule.