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A Lurch to the Left (At Least on Economic Policy):

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.

MarkField (mail):
What you are actually seeing is the relative decline in the number of Southern Dems. The Northern Dems today are NOT more liberal than in 1976; in fact, I'd say they're more conservative. The Blue Dogs just represent a smaller proportion.


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.


I think there's a pretty obvious reason for Barnes' concern beyond the mere size of government.
11.4.2008 1:17pm
Ilya Somin:
What you are actually seeing is the relative decline in the number of Southern Dems. The Northern Dems today are NOT more liberal than in 1976; in fact, I'd say they're more conservative. The Blue Dogs just represent a smaller proportion.


Maybe, but the net impact on the nature of the Democratic caucus is the same.
11.4.2008 1:21pm
wm13:
Obama is a bit of a cipher, but I am inclined to agree that he will move the country sharply left. However, let's remember that left/liberal economic measures don't work. (Compare the economic performance of Europe and America over any recent time period, including the past 12 months.) So the likely result is a Republican resurgence in two or four years. Certainly that has been the result of every major Democratic victory in my lifetime.

In retrospect, I don't understand how Franklin Roosevelt pulled it off. Did tax prosecutions of his political opponents leave people too cowed to resist? Was that his secret?
11.4.2008 1:24pm
gab:
That's quite possibly the largest amount of concentrated horse puckey that I've seen in this election cycle.

We've already had a "surge to the left" unequal to any in our lifetimes, unless you were alive during the 30's. If I'm not mistaken, this happened under a Republican administration.

The government now owns stakes in JP Morgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and most of the other large banks in the country. It also owns stakes in most of the major regional banks. The treasury is also considering (thus, almost certain to happen) purchasing stakes in GE Capital and CIT - major direct lenders. The Fed is lending money (at below market rates) to insurance companies, aircraft leasing companies, and other finance companies thru their Commercial Paper Funding Facility. Congress recently approved loans of $25 billion to the auto companies to enable them to retool to more fuel efficient vehicles. They are also going to guarantee debt out to 3 year maturities of numerous other corporations.

The federal deficit just increased $574 billion in one month!

Barnes (and Ilya) conveniently overlook the almost complete socialization of the banking and finance sector in the US and instead choose to focus on "expanding gay rights." This is either intellectual dishonesty or a complete lack of understanding of what's going on in the world.
11.4.2008 1:35pm
Ilya Somin:
Barnes (and Ilya) conveniently overlook the almost complete socialization of the banking and finance sector in the US and instead choose to focus on "expanding gay rights." This is either intellectual dishonesty or a complete lack of understanding of what's going on in the world.

Far from overlooking the Republicans' big government conservatism, I have repeatedly criticized it right here on this blog, for more than 2 years (see this May 2006 post, for example)), for as long as I have been here. The Republicans' poor recent record doesn't make the Democrats' agenda any less dangerous, however.
11.4.2008 1:39pm
Sarcastro (www):
We barely survived that Commie Carter when he had 61 Dem Senators!
11.4.2008 1:59pm
JB:
It would be nice if there was a party devoted to decreasing the size of government, and ensuring good governance without overburdensome regulation.

Yeah, a party that had realistic plans for reducing spending and balancing the budget would get a lot of votes. Especially if it also had strong planks concerning the protection of civil liberties and reduction in Federal power.

I'd certainly vote for one, if there was one.
11.4.2008 2:06pm
LN (mail):

In retrospect, I don't understand how Franklin Roosevelt pulled it off.


Maybe it had something to do with coming into power when there was 25% unemployment.
11.4.2008 2:15pm
Sagar:
If obama can heal the planet and reduce the ocean levels as well as bring the world together, having a bigger govt is a small price to pay for it.

Hope and Change will just be the icing on the cake!
11.4.2008 2:24pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):

Now the Democratic majorities in both houses are composed almost uniformly of liberals....


I expect paranoid rants from Barnes, but I do not normally expect Somin to approve them blindly. As typical of his journalistic class (WSJ oped page, Weekly Standard, National Review--and I am using "journalistic" lightly here), when Barnes has no fact he just makes shit up. Easily a quarter of the Democratic Caucus in the House self-identifies as Blue Dog and this fraction is likely to remain even with the gains. In the Senate, at least a dozen Democrats have a more conservative record than most Republicans--think, Bauchus, Lincoln, Pryor, both Nelsons, Salazar, etc. There is even a major ideological rift between the two California senators--Boxer is hard Left, while Feinstein has been most voting down the middle.

The burden of a large majority is that it quickly factionalizes but still comes together on major issues. The GOP actually managed to defy this principle for a few years until the Cheney White House made party unity impossible.

But if the Democratic party is turning to the Left, Republicans--and, especially, traditional conservatives--have no one else to blame but themselves. They drove the moderates from the party and allowed the lunatics to run the asylum. To make matters worse, most of the few moderates left in the Senate are likely to lose today, shrinking the "moderate Republican" bloc to as few as three (Snowe, Collins and Specter), with similar losses in the House.

They've been working on monopolizing the South and the secessionist-rich Mountain states and Upper Midwest. They've insisted on message unity, which meant allegiance on all issues, even when the coalition depended on people feeling strongly only a couple of wedge issues--more accurately, they insisted on electing true believers when the voters only wanted protect some issues (and these issues were not uniform across the country). They insisted on Christianization of the Party, which, in turn, led to most ethnic voting blocs shifting to the Democrats. The Big Tent was always a Big Lie.

What happens after the elections? Aside from the circular firing squad, which was inevitable, the dominant force on the Right remains the Extremists. While the few remaining moderates will scramble to protect their interests, the remaining core will be more zealous and more unified than ever in its determination to shift even further to the Right. The alliance between libertarians, economic conservatives and social conservatives is being strained to the point that it is likely to snap. They can thank Nixon's Southern strategy and a handful of loud-mouth Evangelicals for this.

The former Southern Democrats bloc was never stable and would have imploded within the Democratic Party if left to its own devices. In fact, it was bound to implode sooner or later no matter where it found itself. This bloc is far more monolithic than the rest of the country. If allowed to split off into a separate party, it would have made the Republican coalition stronger. But by being absorbed into the party and allying with the Ultra-Right, they managed to destroy the party from within. This has been further aided by a handful of dirty tricksters who decided that 1) a "permanent Republican majority" was necessary, 2) lying to and scaring the voters about the opposition was the most effective strategy, 3) no trick was dirty enough because the end justified the means. (1) is antidemocratic, (2) eventually turns into "cry wolf" and loses its appeal, and (3) backfires when exposed. Voters may play the blame game much of the time but, eventually, they react when hypocrisy becomes intolerable.

Finally, the problems cannot be blamed just on a couple of "bad apples". Most Bush administration policies have been abject failures not because Bush&Cheney were in charge, but because the preference for decision-making was constantly given against expertise, against consensus and against rationality. It's not just that the leaders were inconsistent on principles, the principles they were supposed to espouse have been internally inconsistent, if not outright loony. So, you want to blame Bush for being inept in governance and McCain for an inept campaign? Be my guest. It will only lead to more failure. It's time to revise the message, abandon the scare tactics and try to be more consistent on principles. And, for crying out loud, get some ethical leaders and ethical messengers.

Sometimes amputation is the only thing that can save the body from gangrene.
11.4.2008 2:36pm
MarkField (mail):

Maybe, but the net impact on the nature of the Democratic caucus is the same.


On average, maybe, but you're leaving out the variance. In the post-Watergate Congresses, there was a real chance for very liberal measures to pass because they had a core of support. In the current Congress, the core Dems are much more moderate; that means the liklihood of very liberal policies is reduced significantly.
11.4.2008 3:24pm
Steve P. (mail):
No way, Buck. As recent posts have made clear, the sky is falling.
11.4.2008 3:29pm
Vermando (mail) (www):
I like the use of the word "warn". I think the better phrase might be "were promised and will expect".
11.4.2008 4:57pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):

No way, Buck. As recent posts have made clear, the sky is falling.


Thanks, Steve. I'll count my Chicken Littles in four years.
11.4.2008 5:27pm
Splunge:
I think you're right, Somin, and for the same reason that schools have a hard time making sure the incoming kids are all vaccinated. Parents, having had no experience in their lifetime of the scourge of infectious disease, now take freedom from infectious disease for granted, as if it is merely the natural order of things, and question the modest (but real) costs of the very vaccines that brought them freedom from childhood disease and death.

In the same sense, I think Americans under the age of 50 have enjoyed prosperity for so much of their adult lives that they now take it for granted, as if it follows ineluctably from the laws of physics, and question the modest (but real) costs of those same free-market economic policies that brought them prosperity.

Simply put, too few Americans have any sadder-but-wiser personal experience that would serve to caution them against the lovely you can have your cake and eat it too economic theories served up to them by populists, socialists, demagogues, constitutional law professors, and other hucksters with far more rhetorical brilliance than appreciation for historical reality.
11.4.2008 8:27pm