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George W, Richard Nixon, and Big Government Conservatism:

Conservative commentators David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Jonah Goldberg all condemn George W. Bush's embrace of big government conservatism and analogize his policies to those of Richard Nixon. Frum's piece is particularly interesting, given that he is a former Bush speechwriter and author of The Right Man, a laudatory book about W. By now, it is no secret that Bush has presided over a massive expansion of government, even if one sets aside the increase in defense spending since 9/11.

In addition to the parallels noted by Bartlett, Goldberg, and Frum, here are some additional similarities between Nixon's and Bush's records on big government:

1. Embrace of very broad theories of executive power. It was Nixon who famously said "when the president does it that means that it is not illegal." Bush has not gone quite that far, but he has come very close.

2. Rhetorical criticism of affirmative action coupled with tacit support of racial preferences at the level of actual policy.

3. Support for a massive expansion of the federal role in health care provision (Bush's medicare prescription drug bill; Nixon's proposal to institute national health insurance).

I do not think that W is personally venal and paranoid in the way that Nixon was, nor has his administration (at least so far) produced a scandal comparable to Watergate. But the similarities between their domestic policies are real and, to my mind, extremely disturbing.

In the posts cited above, Bartlett and Frum produce some strong arguments showing that Bush's big government policies might prove to be more lasting than Nixon's did (Goldberg is less pessimistic). They may well be right, but I note 3 countervailing factors:

1. The looming fiscal crisis of Medicare and Social Security, which Bush's policies have helped to exacerbate, might well force spending reductions, just as the fiscal crisis of the late 1980s and 90s forced reductions under Bill Clinton. The alternative of sudden massive tax increases is one that many politicians are likely to shy away from.

2. As the Bartlett, Frum, and Goldberg pieces themselves show, most conservatives have supported Bush's domestic policies (to the extent that they have done so at all), only because they were perceived as a political success. If, as seems likely, Bush's ratings continue to stay low and the Republicans suffer painful defeats in this fall's elections, this perception is likely to dissipate and small government conservatives may reassert themselves politically. Although we shouldn't overemphasize the significance of a single interview, Virginia Senator George Allen, a leading contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, has recently stated that he would bring a "libertarian sense" to the White House and distanced himself from Bush's domestic record.

3. With increasing affluence and technological advances, it has become more feasible to substitute private provision for a wide range of services previously provided by government. For example, this excellent recent book by Robert Nelson notes that some 18% of Americans (up from 1% in 1965) now live in private communities such as condominiums and homeowner associations that provide many or most of the services traditionally provided by local governments. Although the issues involved are complex, such privatization is likely to reduce support for the growth of government, at least at the margin.

Make no mistake - the growth of government is a very powerful trend, and Bush has done a great deal to exacerbate it. But we should not be too quick to assume that the trend is irreversible.

Update: Some commenters, and others, argue that conservatives have only begun to criticize Bush's domestic policies because he has become unpopular or only after the 2004 campaign. I think this is misleading. Many conservatives have been critical of Bush's spending spree all along, and this is certainly true of Bartlett and Goldberg (who has been skewering Bush's spending habits for a long time). See also this 2003 publication by the Heritage Foundation, probably the best-known conservative think tank. What is true is that Republican politicians (not the same group as conservative commentators, by any means) were mostly unwilling to criticize a president of their own party so long as his policies seemed to be a political success. Bush's recent political failures may lead them to change their tune, as George Allen's comments (quoted above) indicate.

wm13:
When Andrew Sullivan stops caterwauling about how the federal government doesn't spend enough on levees in Louisiana, and Daniel Drezner stops demanding more federal funding for stem cell research (it's going to produce really valuable medicines which have no market value, or something), then I'll believe that there's a constituency for reducing the size of government. But in the meantime, given the cacophony from the left about how horrible Bush's budget cuts have been, I think most Republicans are wise to conclude that they haven't been spending enough.
5.4.2006 12:46pm
Cornellian (mail):
Rhetorical criticism of affirmative action coupled with tacit support of racial preferences at the level of actual policy.

Given the administration's support for racial preferences in the Michigan affirmative action admissions cases I'm not sure they deserve the adjective "tacit."
5.4.2006 12:52pm
Wikstrom (mail):
quote:
["Make no mistake - the growth of government is a very powerful trend, and Bush has done a great deal to exacerbate it. But we should not be too quick to assume that the trend is irreversible."]
|

Yes, a very very powerful 'trend' since ~1860 in the United States Republic.

I don't think a century+ period is "too quick" to correctly assume that trend is irreversible.

The U.S. Constitution is a hollow shell -- what forseeable events would reverse &revive the original reality of the "United States"
form of republican organization &law ?
5.4.2006 12:52pm
byomtov (mail):
What nonsense. These guys were delighted with Bush when he was riding high in the polls. They are not honest critics of his policies, they are running from his unpopularity.

The sudden distaste of conservatives for Bush is not based on any new information about his ideas. It's based on changes in his popularity. Who but the self-deluded honestly thought that his tax cuts weren't going to create fiscal problems?
5.4.2006 12:53pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Kevin Drum had an interesting post on the Cato Institute's theory that lowering taxes actually increases the demand for Big Government, so that "starving the beast" is a failed strategy.

Since this idea is simple enough for me, an economic illiterate, to understand, there must be something wrong with it. But take a look.
5.4.2006 1:00pm
Nicolas:
Yes, the government of Bush has a lot of resemblance with the one of Nixon. However, what annoys me is that some people always want to stress that Bush would be some kind of heir of Reagan. Unbelievable!
5.4.2006 1:00pm
Steve:
As Cato points out (h/t Kevin Drum), rampant deficit spending makes it hard to persuade the electorate that spending should be cut, because the spending is "free" to all appearances. Indeed, you can even find intelligent-sounding conservatives arguing that it is in fact free, that the deficit will never have to be repaid!

In our real lives, we understand that if you spend on something, that money has to come out of our budget. Even those of us who live on credit have to cope with the reality of credit limits. The federal government has no such discipline, and unless we reach a bipartisan consensus that rampant deficits are simply irresponsible, it probably never will.

Ideally, politics should be a dialectic, where liberals push for higher taxes and more government programs, conservatives push for lower taxes and fewer government programs, and the electorate manages to strike the appropriate balance. But the currently ascendent "conservative" party has realized that if you raise spending and lower taxes, that's a pretty attractive package! It's not responsible, but the deficit is an abstraction to most people, and the party of "higher spending, higher taxes" will have a hard time beating the party of "higher spending, lower taxes."

I think we all know that there are very few members of the current batch of Republicans who pay more than lip service to the notion of shrinking government. Even the current focus on "earmarks" focuses on a tiny, tiny fraction of the federal budget; it has a feel-good quality, but it will do nothing to restore fiscal responsibility. And frankly, short of a fiscal crisis, I'm not sure what could happen to change the current dynamic.
5.4.2006 1:10pm
Chukuang:
The sudden distaste of conservatives for Bush is not based on any new information about his ideas. It's based on changes in his popularity. Who but the self-deluded honestly thought that his tax cuts weren't going to create fiscal problems?

I, unfortunately, couldn't agree more. Why didn't any of these writers put more (I realize there was always some) pressure on Bush earlier to be more fiscally conservative? I disliked Kerry (and Gore) but a divided government would have been great for the country. The drunken sailor spending of the GOP has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the small government talk was just that, talk. All they cared about was that Bush professed to love Jesus and that he had high poll numbers. The religious conservatives' votes may have ensured victory, but not for people who want to reduce the size and influence of government.
5.4.2006 1:10pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
byomtov: an approval rating in the low 30s seems to require that a large portion of people who previously approved of the president have changed their minds. Why are you so quick to assume people are disingenuously following the polls instead of leading them?
5.4.2006 1:11pm
JDNYU:
What does support for racial preferences have to do with big government?
5.4.2006 1:13pm
Chukuang:
byomtov: an approval rating in the low 30s seems to require that a large portion of people who previously approved of the president have changed their minds. Why are you so quick to assume people are disingenuously following the polls instead of leading them?

Much of that change seems clearly to be related to the way the war in Iraq is going. The complaints of many conservative writers are about economic policies that were clear by the end of the first term if not much earlier. And most of the them still support the war.

What does support for racial preferences have to do with big government?


Perhaps powerful gov't rather than just big. The point is that the government is telling you who you can and cannot hire/accept, etc.
5.4.2006 1:22pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Actually, according to this, the president's approval numbers seem to correspond to gasoline prices.
5.4.2006 1:26pm
Proud to be a liberal :
Bush, Rove, et al. clearly made a determination that the best way to electoral victory (especially for 2004)was to spend &spend. The Medicare drug proposal was clearly a big government proposal aimed at attracting older voters to the Republican party -- a far cry from Goldwater who wanted to abolish Medicare.

Also, Bush could also be analogized to LBJ. LBJ had a guns &butter policy of supporting the Vietnam War without increasing taxes or decreasing government expenses. Bush has tried to obtain support for the war in Iraq by making it cost-free.

Just imagine where support for the war would be if (1) there was a draft so more people would be exposed to having a loved one injured or killed and (2) the cost of the war was paid by increased taxes.
5.4.2006 1:37pm
Ilya Somin:
Yes, a very very powerful 'trend' since ~1860 in the United States Republic.

I don't think a century+ period is "too quick" to correctly assume that trend is irreversible.


Actually, the size of government relative to the overall economy was roughly constant throughout most of the late 19th and early 20th century, and actually shrank during some periods (such as the 1890s and early 1920s). Government spending as a percentage of GDP also shrank under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
5.4.2006 2:22pm
SLS 1L:
What makes affirmative action in public university admissions or government hiring "big government"? Would public universities be smaller if they didn't have affirmative action? Why is affirmative action in government programs "big government" but nondiscrimination in government programs (presumably) isn't?

It looks to me like "big government" really means "government Somin doesn't like."
5.4.2006 2:22pm
Taimyoboi:
"It looks to me like "big government' really means 'government Somin doesn't like.'"

I think Mr. Somin is taking a much broader view of big to mean not only the size of spending, but also the amount of government regulation.
5.4.2006 2:46pm
paulhager (mail) (www):
Where were these guys during Bush's first term? Here's an excerpt of a comment I posted on John Perry Barlow's site in Dec. 2003:

Pre-9/11 candidate Bush was articulating a policy of LESS foreign involvement not more. The U.S. was not going to engage in military adventures in order to "nation build". Bush was also talking about reforming Social Security -- he adopted a Democrat idea of a 1/6 privatization of SS. When he announced this as a candidate, standing behind him on the podium were Senators Bob Kerry and Daniel Patrick Moynihan among others. After 9/11, everything changed. There is no question that military spending is up now. However, there is also no question that going after al Qaeda was going to entail spending money. Whether or not going into Iraq was a good idea may be debateable -- I think it was the least bad alternative and I support it. And that added more military spending. However, the BIGGEST CHUNK OF FEDERAL SPENDING SINCE 9/11 IS FOR ENTITLEMENTS AND DOMESTIC PROGRAMS, NOT THE MILITARY.

As a libertarian Republican, I find Bush's massive expansion of the welfare state very troubling. I also find it astonishing that those on the political left fail to see that, in terms of domestic policy, Bush is to the left of the DLC and the Clintons. It should be clear to an objective observer that Bush moved way to the left in order to take that ground from the Democrats. Why? Because Bush sees himself as the man who is ordained to begin the campaign against international terrorism. Bush sees (rightly, I think) his place in history will be determined by this campaign. Domestic policy, for Bush, is purely a matter of doing what is necessary to allow him to pursue his destiny by winning a second term.


I've also been noting the similarities between Bush and Nixon for well over three years. As I argued above for Bush, I think Nixon's move left was intended to give him a free hand on foreign policy. It may be the case that Bush was a closet "liberal" - certainly the NCLB initiative predates 9/11. However, I think an objective look at Bush policies pre- and post-9/11 will substantiate my argument.

I've also long been of the view that Bush's domestic excesses will prepare the way for a DLC Democrat (say, Evan Bayh) to win the nomination and general election in 2008.
5.4.2006 2:52pm
SLS 1L:
Taimyoboi - does the federal government require affirmative action programs from private employers? I've never heard of such a policy. Afaik, we are only talking about affirmative action programs run by the government.
5.4.2006 2:58pm
byomtov (mail):
Actually, according to this, the president's approval numbers seem to correspond to gasoline prices.

Daniel Chapman,

If that's accurate it seems to answer your previous objection. It suggests that the unhappiness with Bush is not the result of changing views of his policies at all.
5.4.2006 3:01pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
As a libertarian Republican, I find Bush's massive expansion of the welfare state very troubling. I also find it astonishing that those on the political left fail to see that, in terms of domestic policy, Bush is to the left of the DLC and the Clintons.

Bush's two great initiatives that could be tarred by the right as expansion of the welfare state and social engineering (NCLB and the prescription drug plan) by the federal government are like most initiatives by this administration (e.g., healthy forests and clear skies) just gimmicks that actually are intended to benefit parties other than the putative beneficiaries of the programs. NCLB is really a program to destroy public education by setting unachievable goals for public schools (it literally requires that every child be above average) while the prescription drug program is written by and for the pharmaceutical manufacturers, not the consumers of prescription drugs.

Once these programs are seen in this light along with the extreme assertions of absolute power this president has claimed, the picture is very grim. This president, and the compliant congress, is putting in place, what is becoming a pseudo-fascist corporatist oligarchy with an dictatorial powers in the hands of the president (who has all but claimed he has the right to suspend habeas corpus).
5.4.2006 3:15pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Perhaps I should have described it as a Kleptocracy rather than a Oligarchy.
5.4.2006 3:17pm
Fishbane (mail):
Daniel: an approval rating in the low 30s seems to require that a large portion of people who previously approved of the president have changed their minds. Why are you so quick to assume people are disingenuously following the polls instead of leading them?

Part of it is the posture taken claims being made by many of those rats fleeing the sinking ship pundits reversing themselves. some of them, for instance, are not on about the war effort (that would be too much of a complete flip-flop); instead, the very same people who were only too happy to spend years casually comparing disagreement with the President with treason suddenly discovered that they've been cheerleading for a liberal for 5 years, almost as if a dastardly Democrat somehow snuck one by 'em.

It is an attempt to gain distance from the president by claiming he's actually on the other team, and it just reeks of dishonesty.
5.4.2006 3:33pm
Closet Libertarian:
I am certaintly disappointed with Bush as a conservative. It is fair to say that Bush and Nixon are the only recent Republicans to increase spending, but I echo Wikstrom's point that this is small in historical context. These increases are peanuts comparded to the new deal. Compare this Cato graph to an longer term graph. Also note that the receipts chart is more in line with what would be expected from the parties than the outlays.

Secondly, the CATO pub you cite for support of the massive expansion only relates to discretionary spending. This might actually be the least objectionable governement spending. Even Locke and Mill saw some role for defense, police and education.
5.4.2006 4:09pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Taimyoboi - does the federal government require affirmative action programs from private employers? I've never heard of such a policy. Afaik, we are only talking about affirmative action programs run by the government.
Government contractors have been subject to affirmative action requirements since the 1960s. In the late 1970s, I worked as an employment agent, and I had to undergo a phone interview with someone from one of the government agencies asking me for statistics by race on the candidates that we referred to a private corporation with government contracts. She was absolutely flabbergasted when I told her, "I have no idea. We don't keep statistics on this. We haven't even met many of the applicants that we have referred to jobs, so I can't tell you how many of them were black." On one very embarrassing occasion, I actually had to call an applicant and ask him his race, because the employer needed to know this in order to set up a job interview--and even though I had met him in our offices, I couldn't tell! He had a black mother and a white father--good enough for this government contractor.

We had a strong incentive to find and refer black applicants (qualified or not). In practice, government contractors wanted black employees so badly that even if they would not pay an agency fee for a white applicant, they would for a black applicant. In a market where a highly qualified white applicant would average a bit more than one job offer, it was not uncommon for a qualified black applicant to receive three job offers.

One of the signs of how screwed up things became is that unqualified black applicants were in very high demand. One "systems engineer" that I interviewed stands out in my mind. He worked for Rockwell. I could not determine, from interviewing him, that he did anything for Rockwell at all.

His job history was a little unusual. He had worked for The Watchtower Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) in their print shop from 1960-1974. From 1974 to 1978, he worked for Rockwell--during which time he received a B.S. in Physics, an M.S. in Chemistry, and a Ph.D. in Cosmology--all courtesy of a diploma mill in Orange County that Rockwell had paid for him to attend.

This sort of crap was common. I interviewed one guy who worked for IBM in Westlake Village as a software engineer. He had been working for them for about two years after he dropped out of college. I tried very hard to figure out what projects he had worked on. He had done no new development; he had not maintained any existing software. He knew nothing beyond what he had learned in college, and that wasn't much. I later heard that he had done poorly on his first assignment there, and they had shoved him to the side, to be IBM's Hispanic in charge of sitting at the door in case EEOC showed up.

There was one case that was even more sad. This was a young black woman with about three years of experience writing data processing programs (COBOL, I think). Her references were good from both jobs that she had held. Her first job had given her a chance to do a lot of new development, and I came away with the impression that this was someone who, if she wasn't going to be a superstar, was a pretty darn competent programmer. But her second job had stuffed her in a corner--and the job that I was able to get her, again, with a big government contractor--was more of the same. Her competence was less important than her color.

Finally, let me mention how ridiculous this became. Northrop Data Systems actually put this in writing. They had a software engineer position open, and the job requisition said, "Because this position was filled by an EEO double-pointer, it must be filled with same." Yup! I had two applicants that I referred. One had about five years of experience, had experience directly applicable to the position, had a BS in Math, and wanted about $15,000 a year. But he was white.

Instead, I placed an applicant in that position who was fresh out of college. She was reasonably smart (although not brilliant), but she had no paid experience yet. She was, however, Asian, and in the affirmative action calculus of the time, that made her an EEO double-pointer--both female and non-white. The guy that hired her indicated about six months later that she was really struggling. She was trying, but her lack of previous experience meant that she was in over her head--for this job. She probably could have done fine in an entry-level position--but race took precedence over everything else, and she ended up in the wrong job.
5.4.2006 5:09pm
Christopher Cooke:
I would like to note some obvious parallels between George W and Reagan, the conservatives' current "sacred cow":

1.both oversaw a massive increase in the national debt caused, in part, by tax cuts that they pushed through. To be fair to Reagan, he was President when both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats, and the nominal tax rates were much higher than they are now. Bush has no such excuse, as the Republicans have controlled both houses since 2002.

2. both implemented an aggressive foreign policy and defense policy that built up the military and used it aggressively to further their goals. The increased defense expenditures caused by their policies helped exacerbate the annual deficits and national debt. The bulk of Reagan's increased defense expenditures were focused on building up the armed forces and the nuclear arsenal, and not as much to fund the costs of military interventions (e.g., El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada). By contrast, most of Bush's increased military expenditures have gone to fund the Iraq war and reconstruction.

3. In sum, both essentially implemented a "deficits don't matter" irresponsible fiscal policy, and it left it to their successors to clean up the mess they made. Reagan, perhaps out of a genuine belief in the policies of Arthur Laffer and supply-side economics, and an inability to get Congress to go along with greater cuts to fund his tax cuts; Bush, out of the cynical political calculations of Cheney and Rove, who just want to buy our votes to implement their foreign policies.

My prediction is that we will see a new Ross Perot who will harp on the dangers of the structural deficits and irresponsible deficit spending, and who will influence someone to behave with greater attention to fiscally conservative policies in the future. Maybe not this will not be the next President, but likely the one after him or her.
5.4.2006 5:46pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I also find it astonishing that those on the political left fail to see that, in terms of domestic policy, Bush is to the left of the DLC and the Clintons."

That's just bizarre. Bush's domestic policy has been hardcore rightwing, unless you fall into the patently false definition of "government spending = liberal." In the area I know best, labor and employment law, Bush has consistently attempted to gut protections for workers, from repealing OSHA's ergonomics regulations (as one of his very first acts); to holding up the creation of the Department of Homeland Security for months just because of his insistence that employees be deprived of the minimal collective bargaining rights they previously enjoyed; to proposing FLSA regulations that, in their original form, would have deprived millions of workers of overtime rights; to appointing one of the most consistently pro-management, anti-union NLRBs in history; and etc.

The Bush administration has a similarly conservative record on environmental policies and policies in a whole host of other areas. Plus changes to the tax code that make it less progressive. And let's recall that judicial appointments fall under "domestic policy" also.

Now, some folks here may approve of some, many, or all of these Bush policies, but they are in no way "to the left" of the admittedly moderate Clinton and the DLC.

Indeed, there's a decent argument that the perceived early successes of the Iraq war gave Bush political cover to enact a whole mess of right-wing policies that he couldn't have gotten away with if folks were paying more attention to domestic stuff -- see, e.g., the bankruptcy bill.
5.4.2006 5:56pm
tsotha:
I don't think the reversal by pundits has anything to do with either the war or domestic spending. Before the 2004 election criticism of Bush might have lead to a Kerry victory, something they viewed as a greater evil than another four years of Bush. Since Bush can't be re-elected in 2008 they feel more free to criticise his domestic policies. What we're seeing is more true opinion and less strategic thinking.

Sadly, instead of all the reasonable criticisms you could make of Bush's policies, the electorate seems to have focused on high gas prices as a determiner of his popularity.
5.4.2006 5:57pm
Medis:
The idea that a political party in complete control of a government will spontaneously decide to cut the power and size of that government is a bit silly. Indeed, various Republicans, including the President, have been paying lip service to the need to control spending and cut the deficit ever since the Clinton-era surplus first disappeared, but somehow funny things keep happening on the way to the Republicans actually acting on those statements. And I expect the same thing would happen with Allen if the Republicans continue their general electoral success (ie, no matter what he said, somehow spending would keep increasing).

So, I agree that the Republicans might eventually become the party of smaller government again--but only if they once again become the party out of power.
5.4.2006 6:40pm
Smithy (mail) (www):
What these Bush-bashers don't get is that 911 changed everything. We learned that oceans cannot protect us. And our economy suffered a grave jolt. It necessitated new expenditures -- such as the Iraq War and the DHS. Would you rather we had a balanced budget and less national security?
5.4.2006 6:48pm
Steve:
The idea that a political party in complete control of a government will spontaneously decide to cut the power and size of that government is a bit silly.

Consider, if you will, how interested the Republicans were in promoting federalism when the Democrats controlled Congress, and how interested they are in that principle now. It's not a coincidence that Bush hasn't appointed a true federalist like Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. What would the GOP say if the Court suddenly started imposing major limitations on the scope of federal power?
5.4.2006 7:15pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Medis writes:


Indeed, various Republicans, including the President, have been paying lip service to the need to control spending and cut the deficit ever since the Clinton-era surplus first disappeared, but somehow funny things keep happening on the way to the Republicans actually acting on those statements.
Take a look at the actual budget figures (Table 11). The "Clinton-era surplus" didn't actually develop until after Republicans took control of Congress. There are some disagreeable aspects of Newt Gingrich, but he seems to have kept House Republicans focused on keeping spending in check.

There was an improvement in the size of the deficits in Clinton's first two years, because of the tax increases, and probably because of the "peace dividend", but spending increased quite rapidly, knocking out much of the fiscal advantage of the tax increases. What really turned things around was both slightly reduced Congressional spending and the Clinton tax increases. You will notice that the dramatic reduction in the deficit (down into tens of billions, instead of hundreds of billions) didn't happen until fiscal year 1997, after Republicans had been in control of both houses for a couple of years. Neither spending reduction nor tax increases were as powerful individually as both of them together, and there was definitely a synergistic effect. Once deficits started to fall, the Fed lowered interest rates, which increased economic activity, caused "irrational exuberance" in the stock market, and most of the people I knew became multimillionaires, paying huge amounts of money the IRS. (I personally wrote checks to IRS that I could never have imagined when I started working.)

Unfortunately, many Republicans have fallen into the same trap that Democrats suffered for decades--trying to buy special interest support with pork barrel spending.

The tax cuts seem to have revived an economy that was both declining from April 2000 onward (because the boom generated irrational and wasteful economic activity, such as most e-Commerce startups, Enron, etc.) and was badly damaged by 9/11 and related problems. I am generally skeptical of Laffer curve ideas carried to extremes, but the tax cuts are doctrinaire Keynesian economics: spend your way out of a recession. The other part of that equation--pay down the debt during the booms--requires more self-control than any elected body, Democrat or Republican, is able to exert for long.
5.4.2006 7:17pm
Shangui (mail):
What these Bush-bashers don't get is that 911 changed everything. We learned that oceans cannot protect us. And our economy suffered a grave jolt. It necessitated new expenditures -- such as the Iraq War and the DHS.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not 911 "necessitated" attacking an country that didn't attack us and could do us no real harm, the spending figures used by Cato and other critics do NOT include the massive amount of money being spend on the war in Iraq. But extra points to Smithy for yet another post that mindlessly repeats meaningless cliches. Is there a direct line from Fox News through your mouth?
5.4.2006 10:48pm
Alan K. Henderson (mail) (www):
Leaving aside the question of whether or not 911 "necessitated" attacking an country that didn't attack us

Uh, Iraq had shot at at planes enforcing the no-fly zones. Iraq did too attack us. And Saddam aided and abetted someone who attacked us.

I'm still trying to process the juxtaposition of "big government conservative" and "Richard Nixon." Nixon once spoke of tax cuts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger stated during his big speech at the last GOP convention, but I can't think of anything else that idenitifies him as a (fiscal) conservative. Nixon was to the regulatory state what LBJ and FDR were to the welfare state.
5.5.2006 3:03am
Medis:
Clayton,

Don't get me wrong--it is not like the Democrats are the party of smaller government either. In fact, I think one of the reasons for the exploding spending right now is the fact that the Democrats are completely incapable of being an anti-spending opposition party.

So, I agree with what I take to be the thrust of your post: the ideal government for controlling spending is never going to involve one party in complete control of the government. Rather, split governments are by far the best bet. And in that sense, I indeed should have said the "Clinton-Gingrich Era".

And moreover, I would suggest as a more specific thesis that in contemporary America, the best possible combination is indeed a Democratic President and a Republican Congress (at least the House, since we are talking about spending). Not only does the Clinton-Gingrich example provide historical evidence, but I think the dynamic makes sense--Republicans are capable of opposing spending when a Democratic President is likely to reap the attendant political rewards, and I think the opposite arrangement is unlikely to work as well.
5.5.2006 8:31am
paulhager (mail) (www):
JosephSlater says:

That's just bizarre. Bush's domestic policy has been hardcore rightwing, unless you fall into the patently false definition of "government spending = liberal."


From my perspective pork is bad, whether dispensed by Republicans or Democrats; corporate welfare is bad whether dispensed by Republicans or Democrats; rolling over for special interests is bad wheter it's done by Republicans or Democrats. I know what conservatism is. Now it may be that "liberalism" - a word I didn't use, BTW - is not the opposite of conservatism but most people use it that way. I generally prefer to use the word "statist" but "left" seems to work pretty well in the current context. In any case, Slater's objection seems to be that Bush doesn't cater as much as he should to particular special interests such as teachers' unions, therefore he is "conservative", used as a placeholder for "right". Now, that's "bizarre" in my view.

Let's try and agree on our terms. Bush is definitely not a conservative on the unidimensional "liberal-conservative" "left-right" scale that nearly everyone uses to describe political ideology. Using a more sophisticated Nolan-style two-dimensional scale, in which "conservative" is economically libertarian and socially authoritarian and "liberal" is economically authoritarian and socially libertarian, Bush would be a left-centrist and slightly authoritarian, which is where a lot of Democrats actually fall. I'll be happy to use that terminology-scale. But, let's not try to claim that expanding the reach and scope of the welfare state isn't something that is the distinctive characteristic of the political "left" as the term is generally understood. If you want to distinguish between flavors of "left"-ness, I've suggested how you might, above.
5.5.2006 10:24am
paulhager (mail) (www):
Clarification: I did use the word "liberal" in quotes, to note someone else's use of the word.

What's really going on among a large chunk of Democrats is what has been termed "Bush derangement syndrome" - the Democrat variant of "Clinton derangement syndrome". Bush shouldn't be President and anything he does, including acquiescing to the expansion of a host of government programs much beloved by Democrats, is therefore illegitimate or otherwise suspect - translation: "evil" and "rightwing". There shouldn't have been a DHS in the first place - rewarding bureaucratic incompetence by expanding the bureaucracy is Democrat thinking. To me and any other libertarian-thinking Republicans, saying Bush is a rightwinger because of a quibble over collective bargaining in the creation of a new, counterproductive bureaucracy or applying rational, scientific, cost-benefit analysis to OSHA regs but continuing to support the agency's existence is simply absurd.
5.5.2006 10:43am
Medis:
paulhager,

Without getting into the merits of the accusations, I think the problem is that even your two dimensions fail to capture another question we could ask about a politician: which particular people, groups, entities, institutions, and so on does he seek to use the power of government to benefit?

Of course, it is tough to fit answers to that question onto any ideological scale, because it really isn't an ideological question. But I think it is fair to say that it is a valid question to ask of a politician, and useful for classification of that politician.

Finally, I might note that I personally pay almost no attention to uses of the terms "conservative", "liberal", "Left", "Right", and so on, precisely because I think there is no common agreement on what those terms actually mean. But I would also note that I think there are some people who effectively give derivative definitions to those terms based on their political party affiliations (to put it crudely: pro-Republican or anti-Democratic=conservative and pro-Democratic or anti-Republican=liberal). And insofar as that does occur, it is not surprising that something like a politician's favored people, groups, entities, and institutions would start filtering into definitions of "conservative", "Right", "liberal", or "Left", because obviously political parties depend in part on favoring their loyal supporters.
5.5.2006 11:26am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Medis writes:


So, I agree with what I take to be the thrust of your post: the ideal government for controlling spending is never going to involve one party in complete control of the government. Rather, split governments are by far the best bet. And in that sense, I indeed should have said the "Clinton-Gingrich Era".
I don't think that split governments are necessarily any better at controlling spending. What made the combination of a Gingrich-led Congress and the Clinton Presidency work to bring the deficits under control was that Gingrich had a clear vision of what the government should be, and because the Republicans had not been in control of both houses in so many years, they had a chance to develop a clear ideological approach. A Democratic President right now wouldn't be vetoing the pork bills, because pork is fundamentally part of the Democratic Party's traditional agenda: government exists to redistribute wealth, sometimes down, usually up, but generally from those who say little to those who make the strongest case for why they should get it.

President Gingrich might do a better job of reining in a Democratic Congress, but the Reagan Administration's struggles with a Democratic Congress suggest that it would not be spectacular. The lack of line item veto limits the President's authority on this--even when he has the political will, which President Bush does not.

The core problem is money. Congresscritters want to get re-elected. Special interest groups are prepared to spend $5,000,000 scattered among a few hundred races for the House and the Senate because they expect to get 10x or 100x that much back in benefits. The general public is often unaware of the details of specific special interest programs, and even if they are, the costs for each program are tiny. In aggregate, those special interest programs come to a big chunk of money, but like an air force of flies, each individual fly isn't enough of a nuisance.

I don't see any simple solution to this problem, unfortunately. It takes a strongly ideological politician to refuse to bend to special interest money--and if he does it regularly enough, he will find his opponents getting the money instead. One of my neighbors served several terms in the Idaho State Senate, and finally elected not to run again because with each election, he upset a special interest enough that he was having to run campaigns largely out of his own pocket--and his opponents were getting special interest money.

Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) used to be a member of the California State Senate; he wrote a very sobering article about this problem from his federal prison cell, after he was convicted of taking bribes from what turned out to be undercover FBI agents. He claimed that no member of the legislature survived the first election without being corrupted by the need to raise money.

There are exceptions. During the same set of bribery trials, another member of the State Senate was tried (name escapes me at the moment). During the trial, some of his remarks to the undercover agents were played. "We'll have to run this through while Rose [Vuich] is out of the Capitol. She actually reads the bills!" and "Vuich isn't for sale." The shame of being revealed as an incorruptible member of the State Senate may have been too much for her; within a few weeks of these damning comments coming out, she announced that she wasn't running for re-election. (After all, who is going to contribute to your campaign once they find out that they aren't getting anything for it?)

What was really sad was that this corrupt state senator had gotten himself elected to the State Board of Equalization in the meantime, one of five seats statewide. He was convicted of taking bribes in office about a month before the election--and he won the election. Can you think how that made his Republican challenger feel? That he couldn't even defeat a guy convicted of bribery? Admittedly, California is an astonishingly evil place, filled with corrupt and evil people--like the New Yorkers that re-elected Rep. Murphy after his conviction in the Abscam bribery trial in 1980.

One solution might be to prohibit all non-personal political contributions. Individuals can give a maximum of $100 per candidate per election cycle. No PACs. No soft money. This would largely limit office holding to the wealthy, but it isn't like middle class people are getting elected to Congress in large numbers right now.

Another solution would be dispense with elections and pick members of Congress from the voter rolls at random, rather like jury duty. There would be no re-election campaigns, because the selection each time would be random. On the plus side, it eliminates campaign financing. It would also guarantee that a wider range of political opinions would be present.

On the down side, it would probably reduce the intelligence of the average House member--although, since I used to be misrepresented by Lynne Woolsey (D-CA) in the House, this is by no means certain. (I worked with Lynne before she went into politics, and I know her well enough to know that "dumb as a stone" is being complimentary.) It would probably increase outright bribery, because many of those elected would be quite poor. On the plus side, they would likely be so stupid about accepting bribes that they would be easy to catch.
5.5.2006 11:50am
Medis:
Clayton,

You have my logic the wrong way around. I'm not suggesting that a Democratic President would necessarily veto excessive spending by a Republican Congress. Rather, I am suggesting that a Republican Congress would not grant as much spending to a Democratic President.

Consider, for example, Bush's Medicare bill. That bill passed the House only because enormous pressure was applied to Republican holdouts by the Bush Administration and the Republican leadership. Do you really think President Gore could have gotten the Republican House to pass the same expansion of Medicare?

In general, I think that is the factor you are missing in your analysis. Excessive spending on local projects ("pork") does in fact work mostly in favor of Representatives and Senators, and there is no easy answer to that problem. But excessive spending on national projects works mostly in favor of the President. And I think our recent experience with alternating Democratic and Republican Presidents shows what common sense would suggest: a Republican Congress will be reluctant to favor a Democratic President with excessive spending on national projects, but will be fine with bestowing such favors on a Republican President.

Incidentally, I once again agree that a Republican President and a Democratic Congress is less ideal than the other way around, as the Reagan Era shows ... although obviously spending increased far less in that era than it has under the single-party Bush Era.
5.5.2006 12:43pm
osip:
Look it up, guys - spending as a percentage of GNP is less than it was under Reagan. How about that. Still, spending went into overdrive in the aftermath of the stock market bubble bursting, along with interest rates being slashed and taxes cut, all to avoid the risk of Japan-style, post-bubble-bursting deflation. Now that the threat has passed, it would makes sense to slow down spending, but its Congress that would have a problem with that, not the Executive (see the new veto threats).
5.5.2006 1:03pm
Medis:
By the way, here is a little back-of-the-envelope reasoning to support my thesis. CATO issued a report in October, 2005. They looked at, among other things, annualized increases in spending in real terms during various presidencies. At that time, their list (ranked) was:

Johnson 5.7%
Bush II 5.6%
Carter 4.1%
Nixon 3.0%
Ford 2.9%
Reagan 2.6%
Bush I 1.9%
Clinton 1.5%

Of course, the Democrats were in control of the House this entire time until 1994, and the Republicans have been in control since then.

Accordingly, the spending list could also be ranked by these party pairs (President, House) [note: I'll treat Clinton as having a Republican House]:

Dem, Dem 5.7%
Rep, Rep 5.6%
Dem, Dem 4.1%
Rep, Dem 3.0%
Rep, Dem 2.9%
Rep, Dem 2.6%
Rep, Dem 1.9%
Dem, Rep 1.5%

Of course, this is all very rough. But at least tenatively, that is not bad support for my two-part thesis: that split governments are better for spending than one-party governments, and that a Democratic President/Republican House is better for spending than a Republican President/Democratic House. And I note that my treatment of Clinton arguably understates my case, since he had a brief period with a Democratic House.
5.5.2006 1:07pm
Medis:
osip,

But spending as a percentage of GDP is much higher now than it was at the end of the Clinton-Gingrich Era, and increasingly steadily. So is the goal actually to get it back to its 1992 high-water mark?

And incidentally, exactly when did the threat posed by the recession end? Why didn't spending stop increasing faster than GDP then? And when Bush actually carries through on a threat to veto spending, such a threat will become meaningful.
5.5.2006 1:13pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

And incidentally, exactly when did the threat posed by the recession end?
About 2003.
Why didn't spending stop increasing faster than GDP then?
For the same reason that someone who starts shooting heroin because they are miserable continues shooting heroin after their misery is over.
And when Bush actually carries through on a threat to veto spending, such a threat will become meaningful.
Yup. I wish Bush showed as much courage with Congress as he shows with foreign enemies. But remember, this is a democracy, so special interest power has lots of influence on spending.
5.5.2006 3:21pm
Medis:
Clayton,

You say: "But remember, this is a democracy, so special interest power has lots of influence on spending."

Exactly. Which is why one should avoid allowing any particular special interest coalition (namely, either the Republicans or the Democrats) to have complete control of government spending.
5.5.2006 4:10pm
JosephSlater (mail):
PaulHager:

OK, so you are an example of somebody that thinks that left/right is primarily if not entirely based on total government spending. You can define it that way, but few others do. Your snarky comments about teachers' unions actually demostrate that you have an ideology beyond that. Don't be ashamed of it, if you're not. Say it loud and proud: you're anti-union, and you're right wing -- just like Bush. The liberal side of things would be to be pro-union. Bush is on the right wing side and opposing the liberal side on pretty much every other issue too (environmental regs, church-state issues, choice issues, court appointments, etc., etc.)

Bush is a right-winger. Pointing that out has nothing to do with any "derangement" syndrome. But he is your boy. Aren't you proud of him?
5.5.2006 4:29pm
RTL (mail):
JosephSlater - You're missing the point. Just because he doesn't support your POV 100% doesn't make him any of the things you claim him to be. He's NOT instituting a national church state or banning or even attempting to hurt unions on any scale (you all look at the one example as if it's the norm). Bush is not anti-enviroment - he just doesn't see the same threats as you do. In fact he supports eviromental policy that is vastly superior to what you support (Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate Change v. Kyoto accords is a great example) because it's actually happening and includes China and India, which any sensible emmisions policy would include.

Just because Bush is to the right of you doesn't mean he's a right winger. On balance he's simply not and that's why BDS is so perplexing to some of us.

Someday, just for the heck of it. Imagine the things you assume are wrong. Like John Lennon lauds you to do. You might open your mind and get over your sickness.
5.5.2006 8:13pm
JosephSlater (mail):
RTL:

First, everything's relative. Compared to anyone that's been President since, say, FDR, Bush is by far the most anti-union and most opposed to worker-protective laws. By the way, I gave more than one example of that, and I could give many more. So he's not just to the right of *me* on that issue or on a bunch of other issues. Did you miss the whole "he's a real movement conservative" pitch for Bush, or are you just abandoning it when his policies are increasingly unpopular and ineffective? Or put in your terms, just because he may not be as right wing as *you* doesn't mean he's not right wing.

Second, I was being descriptive, not normative, re environmental policy. Whether he's right or wrong in this or other policy areas, Bush supports the conservative/right wing positions. You should be proud of that.

And snarky comments about his position being "clearly superior" to what I support, or telling me to imagine I'm wrong are not just irrelevant here (because we're talking descriptive, not normative), but also are rather silly, given that you have no idea what I support.

But while we're trying to imagine stuff, maybe the dislike for Bush by liberals wouldn't be so "perplexing" to you if you would just admit that he's a man of the political right. Heck, I'm not "perplexed" by why the right -- then and now -- didn't like FDR.
5.5.2006 9:01pm