To govern, as they say, is to choose. To choose requires the assertion of priorities, which often provokes conflict. In our system, we turn generally to politicians to resolve those conflicts.
Think tanks can at best ease tough choices by clarifying their costs and benefits in a timely way. This is the kind of analytic work Brookings scholars enjoy most and do best. This issue of the Brookings Review represents an effort to identify and define some of the tough choices we face as a nation in a key election year.
It is striking how much the political and economic environment for such choices has changed in the past decade.
Rapid economic growth has ushered in an era of fiscal surplus and allowed the federal government to shrink as a percentage of our GDP without actually curtailing central government spending on defense or domestic programs.
The continuing devolution of federal responsibilities to states and municipalities permits a larger number of important choices to be made at levels of government closer to the people.
Divided party control of the White House and Congress has, perhaps serendipitously, encouraged fiscal prudence. A Democratic president has blunted Republican bids for big tax cuts, while Republican control of Congress has contained Democratic efforts to expand discretionary social spending. The benign result: most of the budget surplus has been reserved for paying down the national debt while seeking a broader political consensus for long-term fixes in federal health care and social insurance programs.
In an era when as many as 30-40 percent of voters identify themselves as “independents,” it is scarcely surprising that both major parties are turning to centrist candidates. This does not eliminate debates over residual differences of political philosophy, but does encourage a search for politically achievable remedies for pressing national problems.
In an era of peace, foreign policy issues have been “the dog that didn’t bark” in the campaign to date. Woodrow Wilson noted, prior to his inauguration, what an irony of fate it would be if his administration had to deal primarily with foreign affairs. This was indeed the irony that fate had in store for him and most of his successors. One hopes that discussion of these questions will intensify once the competition shifts from the selection of party standardbearers to a choice between them.
Whatever the outcome in November, the country is experiencing another “era of good feelings,” and we have good reason to celebrate not only a prosperous economy, but a political system which, for all its apparent deficiencies, appears well attuned to these times.