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Have Republicans replaced Democrats as the party of pragmatism?

9:00 AM, Mar 21, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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LAST WEEK, the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of opening a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to energy development. ANWR contains 5.7 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates cited by Ben Lieberman of the Heritage Foundation. The entire rest of the United States contains about 21 billion barrels in proven reserves, notes former Alaska governor and secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel, who adds that oil from ANWR could replace all of our annual oil imports from Saudi Arabia for a generation. Production would come from a portion of ANWR consisting of only 2,000 acres, an area about the size of a regional airport in a refuge the size of South Carolina. The drilling would occur only during the winter (which lasts for about nine months) on roads and platforms of ice that protect the tundra below.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about the local caribou population. During some years, one caribou herd (there are 20 in Alaska) visits the part of ANWR at issue. In those years, the herd appears only in the summer when no exploration activity will take place. In all likelihood, the herd will flourish, just as caribou have flourished in nearby Prudhoe Bay. There, according to Hickel, the caribou population has increased from 6,000 to more than 27,000 since drilling began in the late 1970s.

But caribou are not the real issue. Rather, as Ben Prendergast of the American Enterprise Institute has written, caribou are a pretext of the kind used by environmental ideologues to oppose almost any attempt to develop a pure landscape for the benefit of mankind. Caribou in a desolate arctic landscape; Indian graves in a desert--any pretext will do. The real point is that humans should not gain an advantage through the exploitation of nature. It was this doctrinaire position that Senate Democrats attempted to uphold when they voted with near unanimity against developing ANWR.

THE DEMOCRATIC POSITION on exploiting the environment not unrelated to other positions the party has taken. During the Clinton years, for example, the prevailing view seemed to be that military force should be shunned except where (as in Haiti and Kosovo) its use would not advance any direct U.S. interest, and thus would not undermine our national purity. This aversion to gaining a public advantage at the expense of ideological purity can also be detected in the Social Security debate--thou shalt not benefit from the fact that the stock market works; the debate over public education--thou shalt not benefit from the fact that private schools work; and the debate over faith-based initiatives--thou shalt not benefit from the fact that charitable religious organizations work.

The common theme here is anti-pragmatism. A workable definition of political pragmatism could be this: Public policy decisions should be made based on a weighing of concrete costs and benefits taking into account all interests, but with the interests of Americans outweighing the interests of non-Americans and the interests of living humans outweighing those of buried humans and animals. (Let's leave aside the question of the interests of the unborn.) Ideology can, and inevitably will, inform the way one performs this calculation. However, it is anti-pragmatic to allow ideology to replace or trump the calculation.

THERE WAS A TIME when the Democrats seemed like the party of pragmatism and the Republicans like the party that opposed, on principle, solutions that offered hope. Forty-five years ago, the Democrats were bursting with ideas for alleviating human suffering and want: a minimum wage, Medicare, various elements of what became the War on Poverty. The Democrats were flawed pragmatists because they didn't account for the hidden costs and burdens of their programs, but at least they were proposing serious solutions to real problems. Conservative Republicans seemed less interested in this project, even to the point of opposing, in the name of states' rights, legislation designed to combat the evils of racial segregation and discrimination. But today, we find conservative Republicans pushing for reform and Democrats resisting on principle.

Some disclaimers: It may not always be better to be pragmatic than doctrinaire. And being doctrinaire is not always anti-pragmatic. For example, George W. Bush's insistence on the primacy of democracy in American foreign policy is a doctrinaire policy rooted in the pragmatic observation that democracy makes the United States safer. As a result, it is not always obvious whose approach to a given problem is pragmatic and whose is doctrinaire. And even today there are some issues as to which the Democrats are more pragmatic than the Republicans. (Stem-cell research comes to mind.)

THAT SAID, when one party is perceived as more pragmatic than the other, it has gained a major advantage. The public swoons over politicians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appear to focus "like a lazar" on that which isn't working and to propose solutions based on a good faith analysis of what will work going forward. Ask Bob Dole whether voters prefer a candidate who claims to be a bridge to the past or one who runs as a bridge to the future. The public's preference for pragmatism helps explain why governors have done so well in recent presidential races. They appear to be problem solvers while Senators labor under the image of being bogged down in ideological disputes.

If it is true that Republicans have become the more pragmatic of the two parties, how and why did this transformation happen? The "how" part has a great deal to do with the failure of a potentially great pragmatist, Bill Clinton, to propose a pragmatic answer on healthcare. It has even more to do with the rise of George W. Bush and his big government conservatism. But that's a subject for another day.

Paul Mirengoff is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.

Correction appended, 3/21/05: The article originally stated that outside of ANWR, the United States has about 21 million barrels of proven reserves. The correct number is about 21 billion barrels.