Gimlet-Eyed Federalism

Daniel focuses on David Brooks’ take on America’s uneven optimism. I was particularly struck by the prescriptive part of the column, which draws together a number of Brooksian themes in a particularly compelling way.

These voters don’t believe government can lift their standard of living or lead a moral revival. They want a federal government that will focus on a few macro threats — terrorism, health care costs, energy, entitlement debt and immigration — and stay out of the intimate realms of life. They want a night watchman government that patrols the neighborhood without entering their homes.

This is not liberalism, which inserts itself into the crannies of life. It’s not conservatism, suspicious of federal power. It’s a gimlet-eyed federalism — strong government with sharply defined tasks.

This interpretation accounts for a number of puzzling facts about the American electorate, e.g., that Democrats and Republicans do equally well among the $135K plus crowd, and it lends itself to distinctive policy approaches.


Second, don’t propose any program that will interfere with the way voters are currently organizing their lives. They don’t want you there.

How do we reconcile that with “health care costs” as a macro threat? Simple. Instead of pushing mandates, push federal reinsurance and other measures designed to drive down the cost of private coverage. Other measures, including healthcare quality initiatives, etc., also fit.

On the global front, I tend to think a Robbian emphasis on platforms and resilience makes the most. But that needs to be accompanied, for better or for worse, by broad brushstrokes, which means more than the dull-but-worthy initiatives like Nunn-Lugar. One example of low-hanging fruit: a clean-technology consortium bringing together the US, the EU, Japan, Korea, and possibly others. Or this could take the form of an Organization of Petroleum Importing Countries, that would also include India, Brazil, and others.

A few possibly very bad ideas: a domestic intelligence service (an idea that never gets old), some dramatic restructuring of the armed forces (abolish the USAF?, hand Afghanistan to the Marine Corps?, replace the military with cyborg hunter-killers from the future?), annexing Anglophone Canada.

I know enough about anglophone Canadians to know that this last one would take a large-scale invasion, except perhaps in Alberta, where, minus a couple of college towns, we’d be greeted as liberators.