Implementing Obamacare will be a difficult struggle for the administration, but conservatives waiting for the law to collapse under its own weight are kidding themselves. To persuade the public to trust them on health care, Republicans will need to offer concrete conservative alternatives that (unlike Obamacare) address our system's very real problems. Getting those alternatives right will require conservatives to take account of some basic realities that are often overlooked.
Education reformers have made admirable progress in recent years in passing legislation to transform the way America's schools are run. But getting legislation passed is only half the battle. Seeing to it that new policies are implemented properly on the ground is the other, tougher half, and the reform movement has largely failed on that front. To improve American education, reformers must address the institutional and cultural hurdles that stand in the way of better schools.
We all know the familiar story of the housing crisis that caused the Great Recession: Lenders made too many risky mortgages and packaged them into too many risky financial products, often purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. When poorly qualified borrowers couldn't pay, the whole scheme came crumbling down. But familiar as it may be, this story simply is not true, and policy solutions based on it will not be useful. To avoid the next crisis, we need to understand the last one.
In the past several years, some of our nation's most sensitive national-security secrets have been leaked, and the federal government has responded with aggressive litigation of both leakers and journalists. Both the volume of leaks and the ferocious response are utterly unprecedented and deeply problematic. The combination has created a crisis that few Americans have really grasped.
The conservative legal movement has long stood simultaneously for originalism and judicial restraint. But in the past few years, the tension between a commitment to interpreting the Constitution as its authors intended and deferring to the will of legislators and the executive has become painfully clear. Does originalism demand judicial restraint, or is the Constitution undermined by such restraint?
The story of Medicare — the wildly popular but ill-designed and fiscally troubled health insurance program for the elderly — forces us to face deep tensions between America's constitutional system and the liberal welfare state. The program was enacted by a once-in-a-lifetime congressional supermajority large enough to overcome the usual restraints of our system, and reformers have since seemed unable to fix its obvious problems without a similar supermajority, which they are unlikely to get.
It is often not so much the size as the complexity and incoherence of our government that makes it seem out of control. Because our constitutional system requires the cooperation of numerous players with conflicting interests, politicians often resort to small fixes — kludges — to patch over differences rather than enacting coherent policies. The resulting government is at once bigger than we think and less effective than we want, and so leaves both conservatives and liberals frustrated.
As much as commentators may long for a less contentious politics, conflict among strongly held beliefs is the key to the success of our Madisonian system. The system works because it forces compromise, and so forces partisans to seek the compromise that will best serve their goals. That does not mean we have to like to bargain, but it does mean we have to do it, and so we have to see compromise as an essential component of constitutional self-government.
The Obama administration has brought the question of religious freedom and the rights of conscience to the forefront of American politics. But to understand that question, we need to consider the origins of our traditions of liberty — and of conscience — and to consider why the First Amendment put the freedom of religion first among our rights.