Former President George W. Bush recently gave a speech before a business group meeting in Houston, Texas. In the speech, he explained how he came to endorse bailouts for financial companies, auto companies, etc., toward the end of his term. He said that his personal inclination was to avoid bailouts – that if people or companies do imprudent things they need to suffer the consequences – including bankruptcy. He felt our system depended on that.
Yet he saw it as a matter of business management. His two primary financial advisors, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, secretary of Treasury, met with President Bush in the midst of the financial freeze-up and told him that he was on the verge of presiding over a new Great Depression. They said that the only hope of avoiding such a depression was to proceed with bailouts.
To the president, the issue was clear because his advisors were unanimous and credible: Bernanke, the Princeton professor, who had done his thesis on the causes of the Great Depression, and Paulson, the practical businessperson, former chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs.
As President Bush, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School, explained it in his speech, good management requires you to select advisors whose advice you trust – and, when that advice is unanimous, take that advice. After all, if you don’t, it means those people weren’t respected or trusted enough and had no business being your advisers to begin with.
So George W. Bush saw it as an easy call – on one hand, a new Great Depression; on the other hand, no new depression. As he said, the choice was clear and, despite his inclinations toward free enterprise, he explained, “I chose no depression.”
One can criticize President’s Bush’s application of management theory to politics. For one thing, his theory seems to equate “trusting” an advisor with “agreeing” with an advisor – yet it would also seem important to bring in a diversity of opinions among those one relies on for advice.
It also implies a very technocratic view of the president, a kind of tie-breaker-in-chief approach to issues without a rooted philosophy of government. A famous anecdote – perhaps apocryphal – about Abraham Lincoln suggests an alternative view of the way the presidency should operate:
When he brought in the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln polled his Cabinet. The Secretary of State stood and uttered his "Nay" unmistakably. The Secretary of the Interior followed suit. The Treasury Secretary and so forth: all against. Lincoln heard them each in turn. Then Lincoln raised his hand and said “Seven nay, one aye” ... "The ayes have it."
Ronald Reagan also seemed to operate with a more principled perspective. Ken Adelman, who was a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director during the Reagan administration, explained how President Reagan worked, in a piece written after Reagan’s passing:
I remember Ronald Reagan with nothing but fondness and admiration.
My first epiphany came early in his administration, when we gathered in a formal National Security Council meeting in the Cabinet Room. Secretary of State Alexander Haig opened by lamenting that the Law of the Sea Treaty was something we didn't like but had to accept, since it had emerged over the previous decade through a 150-nation negotiation.
Mr. Haig then proceeded to recite 13 or so options for modifying the treaty -- some with several sub-options.
Such detail, to put it mildly, was not the president's strong suit. He looked increasingly puzzled and finally interrupted. "Uh, Al," he asked quietly, "isn't this what the whole thing was all about?"
"Huh?" The secretary of state couldn't fathom what the president meant. None of us could. So Mr. Haig asked him.
Well, Mr. Reagan shrugged, wasn't not going along with something that is "really stupid" just because 150 nations had done so what the whole thing was all about -- our running, our winning, our governing? A stunned Mr. Haig folded up his briefing book and promised to find out how to stop the treaty altogether.
That set the tone for the first Reagan administration.
When the time came to evaluate the surge in Iraq, the Bush advisers were divided, thus giving President Bush the opportunity to go with his inclinations.
Whatever one might think of President Bush’s management theories, the outcome poses some dilemma for conservatives.
On the one hand, just as the “Constitution is not a suicide pact,” there is no indication that the American people are so doctrinaire that they want government restricted to a degree that it cannot respond to emergencies or act to prevent dire outcomes – such as a new depression.
On the other hand, the conservative objection to bailouts is not solely prudential; the conservative objection is also that bailouts are wrong. That to take money from someone who has lived prudently to cushion the crash of an indulgent person is not acceptable.
Even to take actions that are designed to favor one class of people over another is, for many conservatives, simply not an appropriate use of government authority. For example, the massive efforts being exerted to help the real estate market are not really proper, because, whatever the justification, it is wrong for the government to look to favor homeowners over, say, renters, who may want to buy a home.
William Kristol has noted that conservatives may have to be ready to govern sooner than many expected: “A year and a half ago, it seemed that conservatives would have years in the wilderness to lick their wounds and gather their forces. Now, suddenly, conservatism is being called on to be intellectually robust and politically adept.”
We simply can’t count on having principled politicians in the mode of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Typically, presidents of both parties come to the office as politicians, not ideologues. Yet it seems somewhat unsatisfying to say the difference between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives will only abandon their principles if something really big is at stake, whereas liberals don’t believe in the same principles at all.
Somewhere in this ambiguity is the Tea Party movement, seeking to express coherently a dissatisfaction with the policies of President Obama, but well aware that the last Republican president in office, though different in inclination, did not, when the chips were down at the time of the Bear Stearns debacle, feel either constrained in what he could do, nor hesitant in what he should do – namely, whatever it took to avoid a bad outcome.
An intellectually robust and politically adept conservatism has to come down against the kind of ad hoc machinations that characterized the end of the Bush term as it relates to the economic crisis – and continue to characterize the Obama administration. The answer has to be that, although giving politicians occasional free rein to act might work, on balance, such freedom will lead to crony capitalism and a stratification of society as the power of government is put behind whoever is the existing interest group.
It is much like the argument for democracy itself. Sure, sometimes, a benevolent dictator might act more wisely, effectively, and quickly – but we still reject dictatorships because, over time, they will produce abusive government and bad policies. It is worth remembering that Winston Churchill gave his famous homage to democracy – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” – in 1947, after he had been thrown out of office in the election of July 1945.
It is one thing for the government’s policies coincidentally to benefit certain people or organizations, as when the government builds the interstate highway system and landholders near the highways get rich. In the end, though, it is incompatible with the American system, and with the conservative movement, for the president to believe that government has in its power to bail out Bear Stearns – even if he believes that will help the country.
This means the challenge for conservatives is to persuade the populace that, over time, we will be better off limiting government than allowing total flexibility. The Tea Party movement, not affiliated with any political party, is, in fact, ideally suited to take on this task, the task of inculcating in the American people with the kind of deep belief in limited government that is inherent in democracy.
When a crisis approaches, few Americans call for something as radical as a dictatorship. So when an economic threat approaches, we have to steel citizens to the idea that government is simply not free to bail people and companies out or to try and boost home values, that its economic responsibilities are more constrained and general in nature – maintaining a sound currency, a proper tax system, keeping expenses below revenues, etc.
Beliefs have consequences, and if the people come to accept that they can’t count on government to prevent economic fluctuations, they will themselves behave more prudently.
It is a comeuppance devoutly to be wished. The question is, to a large extent, whether the Tea Party movement can acquire the intellectual coherence and distinctive voice to go beyond expressing dissatisfaction and toward articulating rules of conduct for both political parties and the government itself.
Jim Prevor is the recipient of the Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity and was a finalist for the 2010 Gerald Loeb award. He often contributes to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New Atlantis, National Review Online and many other publications.