IS THERE a starker contrast than the one between the glorious triumph of American arms abroad and the grubby selfishness of our politics at home? While American soldiers, seamen, and pilots risk their lives in and around Afghanistan, while the American people rally around their nation's cause with a new sense of seriousness, the atmosphere of inspired patriotism leaves no practical mark on Capitol Hill. There, the season of war has been a golden season for lobbyists and for well-connected pleaders.
IS THERE a starker contrast than the one between the glorious triumph of American arms abroad and the grubby selfishness of our politics at home? While American soldiers, seamen, and pilots risk their lives in and around Afghanistan, while the American people rally around their nation's cause with a new sense of seriousness, the atmosphere of inspired patriotism leaves no practical mark on Capitol Hill. There, the season of war has been a golden season for lobbyists and for well-connected pleaders. Everybody expects the path of legislation to be greased with a certain amount of pork barrel spending and special- interest favoring. But we also expect that in times of crisis, selfishness will exhibit some sense of restraint, or even a hint of shame. But that hasn't been the case. Given the chance to put together a stimulus package, each party reached for a grab bag of old chestnuts without even pretending to make an intellectual case that these measures would actually stimulate the economy. The defense authorization bill was larded with so much corporate welfare that military needs were scarcely detectable underneath the incrustation. There was, for example, a $30 billion subsidy for Boeing, which Senator Phil Gramm called the most egregious bit of pork he'd seen in his 22 years of service. Democratic congressman Patrick Kennedy embodied the spirit of the moment with a letter to his constituents boasting of the $90 million in special favors he had managed to smuggle into legislation this year. It's been a stiff contest to see who would win the title of chief cynic, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has smugly walked away with the prize. His behavior over the past weeks has been a case study in putting party before country. Machiavelli could sit at his knee. His chief accomplishment was to kill the stimulus package. Here's why he did it: In order for the stimulus package to pass in this closely divided Congress, each party would have to get some of what it wanted. Democrats wanted spending programs for the unemployed. Republicans wanted accelerated tax cuts to spur investment. But Daschle and the Democrats hope to run against the Bush economy, and the Bush tax cuts, in 2002 and 2004. They think the budget will be in deficit and the cuts will be in disgrace by then. But the Democrats would not be able to run against tax cuts in 2002 and 2004 if they agreed to accelerate them in 2001. Therefore, Daschle could not compromise. He had to kill the stimulus package. All of the majority leader's maneuverings of the past few weeks--including his cockamamie insistence that no package could be passed unless it was approved by two-thirds of the Democratic caucus--have been designed to get to "No." In killing the stimulus bill, Daschle and the Democrats left a lot on the table. Republicans caved on issue after issue over the past weeks. The conservative press turned on the bill as they saw it lurching leftward. By the end, Daschle could have brought home over $30 billion in unemployment benefits, $13 billion in health benefits for the unemployed, and tens of billions of dollars in rebate checks for families earning under $31,200 a year. If he had truly been concerned about the plight of the unemployed, Daschle would have taken all that money, especially in return for a puny tax cut for the middle class--a drop in the rate from 27 percent to 25 percent. But politics trumped policy. He needs to run against the cuts, and so could accept no compromise. Republicans are secretly relieved that the stimulus bill, which was substantively pretty bad, didn't go through. Moreover, there are signs that they are in pretty good shape politically. A CNN/USA Today poll reveals that the public prefers Republican economic plans to Democratic economic plans by 9 percentage points. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll gives the GOP a solid 11-point edge in a generic congressional ballot. But this is no time for Republican complacency. In the first place, the stimulus package debate revealed that the Republican party has lost its ideological muscle tone. Remember, before Ronald Reagan came to town, this was a comfortable, corporatist party. Reagan gave Republicans an intellectual mission. But after he left, the party slipped back into Bob Michel corporatism--and the minority status that goes along with it. Then came Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey to give it ideological muscle again. Now it is sliding back toward K Street flabbiness. The ideas the Republicans stuffed into the original stimulus package had no intellectual coherence. The supply-side lessons have been forgotten. Milton Friedman's warnings about the futility of Keynesian pump-priming were ignored. Instead it was mostly favors for the boys. The Democrats don't need a sense of intellectual mission to win. They have special interests who will lobby for more spending. The structure of Washington is rigged to support bigger government. Republicans can only seize the initiative when they are fired by ideological zeal. If they revert to their corporatist instincts, as they appear to be doing, then the future will be a series of shabby retreats, punctuated by a few gifts for well-connected corporations. With all due respect to Dennis Hastert, Bill Thomas, and Trent Lott, it will now be up to the Bush White House to refire the Republican party, to give coherence to its mission, and to show how Republican policies will benefit the entire nation. In light of that task, several questions arise. First, is George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism a strong enough branch to carry the weight of GOP domestic policy? Second, have the events of September 11 fundamentally altered the political landscape, requiring a new political approach? Third, is all this moot? Will the next few years be so dominated by foreign policy that domestic policy will take a back seat? Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute forum recently, Bush consigliere Karl Rove suggested he does not believe that the events of September 11 have fundamentally altered the political landscape. Rove is still speaking the language of compassionate conservatism. He poured cold water, for example, on the idea of expanding national service as a way to build character and institutionalize patriotism among the young. Rove may be right that political realities will change less than many think. It's a clich to say that periods of war generate periods of activism, but history is not so simple. Was the post-Civil War period noted for activism? Isn't it more accurate to say that World War I killed Progressivism and heralded a period of quietism? Didn't World War II similarly squelch the New Deal? Still, the president is taking a huge risk if he thinks that he can return to the style of politics that prevailed before September 11. For one thing, compassionate conservatism was already petering out. Then, too, the public does seem to have been strongly affected by recent events. The triumph in Afghanistan has created a sense of confidence that this country can tackle big problems. The victory need not lead to a period of liberal revival, as some Democratic fantasists have argued, but it does relegitimize the central institutions of government. It does give people a sense that we can actually shape our future rather than being blown about by forces beyond our control. Moreover, the contrast between the parts of government that work--the Defense Department--and the parts that don't--our tax code--is stark. We can be proud of our country, but can we be proud of the political machinery in Washington? The whole situation cries out for big thinking, for a sense of revitalized mission, for reform. The next 12 months could be ugly. The political mood is sour. Democrats are going to wage a relentless war on the Bush tax cuts. Tom Daschle looks like Bambi but he bites like Jaws. The danger for the Republicans is not that the public will abandon conservatism and turn to the Democrats: Voters still have little taste for the orthodox liberalism that the Democratic party is reverting to. Instead, the danger for Republicans is that they will fail to seize the moment. They will sink back into a tawdry corporatism. They will become acquiescent partners in a period of political drift, during which government will grow mindlessly bigger and the current moment of high patriotism will pass, leaving only a sour mood of disenchanted ennui. --David Brooks, for the Editors
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