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Hey Europe, just kidding!

If you were the Bush entourage, securely back home after a nicely scripted European trip, confident that you won't have to pretend to like Jacques Chirac or any other people who speak foreign languages for a long time, what would be a good way to quickly send the signal that all that stuff about cooperation, consultation, multilateralism was about as serious as, oh, "humility" in foreign policy or "uniter not a divider"?

Hmm, this requires some real creativity. A devious, twisted mind. Can't invade another country -- no troops left. Don't want to bother Congress, too much trouble up there already. Apparently a lot of them didn't have such a pleasant vacation last week, since dealing with pissed-off seniors is a little harder than getting garcon to bring extra ketchup for your fois gras.

"I've got it," says the quiet guy with the most devious imagination of all: "We've got that vacancy at the World Bank. Let's put Paul Wolfowitz in there. Make the world come begging to him for their precious money."

It's kind of brilliant, in its way. And I didn't make it up.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Is It Really Ownership if...?

Just to pull out a parenthetical phrase in my previous posts:

Do you really have an Ownership Society if you are taxed to create private accounts that:

1. Have very, very limited investment options?

2. You cannot touch until retirement, and when you do, you are not allowed to do anything with them except buy an annuity that would pay a fixed annual benefit?

3. Any gains in the accounts are taxed at a rate of 100%, unless you earn more on your account than the Treasury bill rate?

This last point, which goes to the issue of the "privatization tax," got me thinking about something else:

Whether you call it a "tax" or a "loan," the reduction in guaranteed benefits proportionate to the gains in the private account, up to the cost of borrowing to create the accounts, is a real feature of the Bush plan as we know it. Backers of the plan, like Donald Luskin, would prefer to call it a choice, rather than a tax or a loan -- you can choose at least a 3% gain, whether it comes from the benefit or from the private account, but you can't take the same 3% from both. That sounds perfectly reasonable (if accurate), so let's drop the "tax" concept and treat it instead as a guarantee of a ~3% gain, the more optimistic gloss that Luskin would put on it. If you give participants any investment choices at all, even the handful of index funds that make up the federal employees' Thrift Savings Plan, doesn't this create a huge problem of moral hazard? If you are protected against losses, and in effect guaranteed a 3% gain, wouldn't the logical investment strategy be to go for the riskiest investments possible? If the average stock market gain is expected to be 4.6%, the difference between my guaranteed benefit and my private account is only 1.6% -- a trivial gain. Why not swing for the fences. Give me the biotech startup mutual fund! Bring on the nanotech stocks! And what about that nice boy who called the other day from Arizona offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in on the ground floor of the next Google?

Surely creating this sort of moral hazard is not real ownership, with the choices of security and risk that a real investor faces.

The other possibility is that investors are given no choices at all, compelled to invest in a "life cycle" account that follows broad market indices and shifts the balance from stocks to bonds as retirement nears, a perfectly reasonable way for ordinary investors to operate, and a popular option in 529 college savings plans. If that's the case, and you combine zero choice of investment with a forced annuitization and a guaranteed minimum benefit, then what do you have? In aggregate, something exactly like what you would achieve by simply investing some proportion of trust fund assets in equities, using a broad market index. All the downsides of that approach -- possible politicization of the fund, no feeling of individual ownership -- would remain. The only difference would be that some people would do better or worse depending on the state of the market at the point when they retired, a difference that would be magnified by being forced to buy an annuity.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

How Social Security Phase-Out Makes Republicans

Noam Scheiber asked an important question this week: how damaging could the Social Security debacle be to Congressional Republicans, and why did the White House put them in this position? I asked a prominent Democratic pollster a similar question the other day -- why did they set the table so poorly for the debate -- and she compared it to a question she had been asked by a Republican counterpart: "Why do you Democrats keep pushing affirmative action when it polls so badly?" Her answer, "Because we believe in it." And that was her best guess at why Bush was pushing privatization so carelessly. And that's surely part of the answer to why they push it, but it does not explain everything, including why they did not prepare the ground.

I've had my own theory, which seems true at some moments and wrong at others, which is that the administration doesn't mind losing -- and in fact, could avoid the negative consequences of winning -- if they can paint the sharpest possible contrast between Republicans as the party of innovation, investment, growth, opportunity and ownership; and the Dems as the party of the defense of stale, old, unchanged, security programs. I think that explains some of the resistance to compromise on the White House's part, but it also required a better setup.

The other, less conspiratorial, answer to Noam's question comes from Matt Yglesias: They believe privatization will create more Republicans. Unlike Matt, I don't think that's such an obscure explanation; I think they've said it many times, they've programmed David Brooks to write it, and it's kind of obvious. They have a belief, well supported by polling data, that ownership of financial assets tends to correlate with a trend toward voting Republican. And not surprisingly, their entire tax policy consists of eliminating taxation of the gains from financial assets.

Whether that trend would hold true with the small-potatoes accounts created to replace Social Security, particularly if they don't have many of the options associated with real ownership (investment choices would be limited, you would be required to annuitize at retirement, and any gains would taxed at 100%), I don't know. But this is theology we're dealing with, and clearly Bush and Rove believe this, and they believe it so strongly that they assume every other Republican understands it too.

The political problem with this is that even if it's right, it's a long-term theory. The average Republican congressman doesn't want to hear about creating a lot of Republicans four or sixteen or thirty-two years from now, if he's going to take a lot of heat for it this year. He doesn't even have to feel at risk of losing his seat (there's always a $300,000 lobbying gig waiting), because it is the rare politician who can walk out of a very hostile town meeting unaffected. Bush did absolutely nothing to help Joe Congressman feel like he can get away with voting for Social Security privatization, and so Bush has only himself and his slime-the-opponent campaign for reelection to blame for the debacle.

Now, there is another way that Social Security privatization could create Republicans, and I think this is actually closer to what's on the mind of the less utopian strategists. (That is, those not named "Gingrich" or "Kemp.") It's the negative: they believe Social Security creates Democrats, by fostering a positive sense of government, which in Texas is called "dependence." They don't care about the private accounts so much as eroding as much as possible of the guaranteed benefit. I heard Gene Sperling, the head of the National Economic Council under Clinton, make a point related to this the other day: that the reason the White House seemed to be structuring the privatization in the bizarre and awkward way that they are, especially the reduction of the regular benefit by any gains in the private account, rather than just guaranteeing the benefit and making the account smaller, was to make sure that the guaranteed portion of the program appeared to be as trivial as possible.

This is related to what I believe is the Republican strategy to break any positive connection between citizens and government. The appointment of "Constitution in Exile" judges and the stripping of government of all revenues is part of the strategy. Even the horrendous Medicare prescription drug bill fits this strategy, in my theory, because in its arbitrariness, its cost, its "donut hole" where coverage is needed most, it will, when fully phased in, create only anger and frustration, not the positive associations that people have with a reliable, sensible insurance program like Medicare or Social Security. It is an "anti-entitlement," the opposite of the guaranteed protections that entitlements can offer.

The positive theory that accounts will make people excited, entrepreneurial, wealth-accumulating owners, and thus Republicans, expresses one idea about human nature. The negative, anti-government theory embodies another: that people, unless desperate, will not rise up to demand what they don't have and have never known. Here it's useful to remember that Karl Rove's historical parallel is the 36 years of Republican dominance from the McKinley election in 1996 to Hoover's defeat. That was a brutal period in American economic life. Government offered nothing in the way of benefits for workers, minimal widows' pensions, no aid for children, monetary policies that were cruel to farmers and regulatory laissez-faire that was cruel to workers. And yet, year in and year out, people took it, without question. It was the natural order of things. Only the greatest economic collapse in our history forced change. People generally don't demand what they don't have. When Social Security is gone, it will not come back, no matter how badly the accounts do. And people will not respond to its absence by becoming Democrats and demanding the restoration of an economic safety net for seniors. Rather, they will forget it ever existed and vote Republican, confirmed in their belief that government doesn't do a damn thing for anyone. There is little doubt in my mind that this is the thought process in "Bush's brain."

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Au-H20, again

Suddenly, everyone in the Drum/Yglesias/DeLong blog clique is reading or re-reading Rick Perlstein's great 2001 book about the Goldwater campaign, Before the Storm. If your interest has been provoked by this lively interchange, you might be interested in the review I wrote of the book at the time.

In part of my review, I made the somewhat idiosyncratic point that Goldwater's politics lead to Reagan and to Bush/DeLay, sure, but they lead more directly to John McCain, who holds Goldwater's Senate seat, and is similarly thin-skinned, unpredictable, and while not liberal or even moderate, nonetheless admirably independent, rational, decent, and outraged at corruption or cheap hate politics. Pearlstein shows Goldwater's fight as largely against the Republican establishment -- the pro-civil rights, entitled, Northeastern establishment of Prescott Bush -- just as McCain's was against an establishment that had become much more rigidly right-wing, corrupt and hate-mongering.

I had to argue hard to keep two paragraphs on this point in the review, because the implicit point of the book, and most readings of it (including Kevin's, Matt's and Brad's), was that the Goldwater defeat laid the groundwork for the right-wing takeover of the Party and country. Even though Perlstein wrote almost nothing about events after election day 1964, the book has been read mostly as a parable for the situation of the Democratic Party 40 years later. That can be taken in several ways: The first is to see abject defeat as the beginnings of renewal, in some unmediated Cycles-of-History or Alcoholics Anonymous theory under which you can only begin recovery by reaching rock bottom. A second reading is to see the intra-party insurgency built up for Goldwater's 1964 campaign, and his bracingly ideological speeches as providing the ideological clarity that a party needs. In other words, Goldwater was the Howard Dean of his day, giving the party not a president, but a spirit. Another is to see the conservative movement taking a deep look into its soul after the 1964 defeat, and from that point forward, building out the think tanks, grassroots organizations, media outlets, and state-level operations that ultimately led to sustained success. George Packer put this interpretation well in April 2001, writing in the New York Times:

In a new book, "Before the Storm," Rick Perlstein shows how grass-roots Republicans responded to Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 -- not by trying to install new party leaders, but by forming think tanks, training activists, knocking on doors and electing true believers to local offices. Conservative Republicans, who knew what they were about, refused to be discouraged by a mere 16-million-vote defeat. Instead, they took it to mean that they could move the country in their direction. By 1980 their new Goldwater had emerged as president.

I don't think the first reading holds up. (A journalist told me the other day that he'd called up Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recently and asked, "Whatever happened to the Cycles of History?," and that Schlesinger said something like, "Good question, I've been wondering about that myself.") The second interpretation doesn't quite comport with history, since for the next 16 years, the Republican party's presidential nominees, as well as its governors and congressional leaders, were mostly from the moderate, establishment wing of the party. The third reading, Packer's, while extrapolated from the book, is probably the closest to the truth, and certainly the most useful to current circumstances. (This is also the argument Paul Waldman makes today. (I can't get this written in time to contribute to the discussion if I keep stopping to read these things.)

DeLong has a fourth argument:

in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society--and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it--Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

The first point -- that the Great Society was made possible by Goldwater's polarization of the electorate, which increased the Democrats' congressional majority to 68 in the Senate and 295 in the House, the largest majorities since Reconstruction -- is plausible. But if LBJ had faced one of the establishment candidates of 1964 -- Rockefeller, Scranton or Romney -- his margin would not have been as wide but he would still have won and might easily have brought two Senators and 45 House members with him, and the conservative Southerners (all Democrats until Thurmond endorsed Goldwater and changed parties) weakened their own hand by their defection on civil rights.

And it is also true that the conservative assaults on Great Society government have mostly been turned back: Nixon, it is now fully understood, governed as a domestic-policy liberal; Reagan fixed Social Security and did roll back no more than 10% of the Great Society without too much damage, and the Gingrich revolution, which set out to at the very least, if only for symbolic reasons, eliminate at least one cabinet department, accomplished nothing of the kind. Today, as DeLong points out in either an earlier version of this post or another one, Social Security is as big as ever, Medicare was just expanded, etc.

Now, I have two reactions to that. The first is that the persistence of big government is not the same as liberalism. I have no interest in the Medicare program being of a certain size. I want it to work. Similarly, if it includes private accounts, Social Security will be vastly bigger than ever, but will provide less social security. And these unpopular, arbitrary programs will leave people even more discontented with government, a discontent which will further undermine liberal arguments.

Second, I think the Bush/DeLay assault on the Great Society (and the New Deal) is based on learning a key lesson from what they see as the failures of Reagan and Gingrich: You only have a brief moment, and don't waste it attacking the edifice of liberalism itself. Undermine its foundations. Thus, strip the government of revenue, and eventually the programs will collapse. Install "Constitution in Exile" judges with a pre-New Deal view of the Commerce Clause, and eventually the federal government will lose the ability to regulate anything.

Both these tactics show a recognition of the insights of political scientists Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free (not to be confused with the Lloyd Free who became "World B. Free" as an NBA star of the late 70s) based on their survey in 1964. Cantril and Free argued that Americans were generally "operational liberals" and "ideological conservatives," and they specifically diagnosed the Goldwater defeat in those terms:

Republican Senator Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election, Free and Cantril argued, because he was an in-your-face operational conservative. He traveled to Tennessee, for example, to make a speech blasting the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). "As long as Goldwater could talk ideology alone, he was high, wide, and handsome," they wrote. "But the moment he discussed issues and programs, he was finished."

The paragraph above is from Michael Nelson's 2000 election post-mortem in The American Prospect.

What the think tanks and grassroots groups and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz figured out over the 36 years after Goldwater was how to retain the language of ideological conservatism, leave unchallenged the facade of operational liberalism, and use that combination to exercise power long enough and aggressively enough to destroy every future prospect for operational liberalism. I think they have scuttled much of the strength of real conservatism in the process, but I don't think that's anything for liberals to be glad or complacent about.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 25, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Who Funded GOPUSA?

I haven't written anything about the Gannon/Guckert scandal because this is a very high-minded blog. No, actually -- having received complaints about profanity recently -- it's not that we're so high-minded here, just what is there to say? I almost wish he weren't a gay prostitute, because the basic question of why the White House needed some unqualified plant to ask softball questions is a scandal in itself. They used to manage their press briefings well enough just by calling on foreign reporters who were certain to ask some totally irrelevant (or irrelevant to U.S. voters) question. When did that tactic stop working?

But for all that seems to be known about Gannon/Guckert, his watch and his abs, one piece of information seems -- at least on a quick scan of the likely sources -- to be elusive: Who paid him? (I mean, paid him to be a journalist, not for his main vocation, about which I am too high-minded to even be curious.) That is, who funded GOPUSA? They seem to operate as a for-profit, so they don't solicit for donations on their site, but the only thing they sell is some shirts and crap with their lovely logo.

All the available information about GOPUSA seems to have been collected here on DailyKos. This includes info about the board of directors, which has been deleted from the GOPUSA site itself. This includes one man who was a policy advisor to Texas Governor Rick Perry, and a woman who ran the State Policy Network, one of the most important components of the right-wing machine.

Someone was funding this. Most likely, given its Texas base and connections to Perry and others, it was part of the Texas operation that includes DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority PAC and others. But that's just an educated guess. It's remarkable that there's zero information on this.

In addition to Houston prosecutor Ronnie Earle, a number of organizations have been tracking the DeLay money machine for several years now. These include the diligent Texans for Public Justice and the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But a particularly interesting angle has been developed by the Center for Political Accountability. They have been tracking political or quasi political contributions that come from major public corporations, and go through committees such as DeLay's indirectly to groups such as Rev. Louis Sheldon's hate-mongering Traditional Values Coalition. Then they have been placing proxies on corporate shareholders ballots asking the companies to disclose their contributions, their policy on such contributions, and the business purpose.

It's an ingenious strategy and likely to help close down some of this system with a simple gesture. First, big public companies don't like controversy and don't need questions like this. Second, many of these companies pride themselves on providing domestic partner benefits and basically being good citizens. They don't want to be associated with groups like the Traditional Values Coalition. It's not worth it, just because their Washington lobbyist is telling them they have to do whatever DeLay tells them.

More recently, the Center issued a report which they call the Green Canary. The argument is fairly complicated, but basically what they are saying is that shareholders should be concerned about companies that make heavy contributions like this, because often they are using their political connections to cover up for mismanagement, citing the examples of Westar Energy and Enron, among others.

If GOPUSA is like other outposts of the Texas money machine, it's very possible that some of this corporate money flowed into it, not directly but through one of the other "soft money cutouts." If someone can get to the bottom of this, raising questions at the corporate level about why they funded Gannon/Guckert is likely to be highly embarassing, even if the company's executives are conservative. These companies in the future will probably exercise some oversight on their contributions to make sure they know where they are going. And that will significantly cut down DeLay's extortionary power. Similar questions should be raised with the companies that funded USA-NEXT and their anti-gay anti-AARP ad.

I hope we begin to see some answers about who funded GOPUSA soon. Again, all this is speculation -- maybe they made enough money selling GOPUSA-logo t-shirts and trucker caps to pay Gannon and maintain Talon News. I suppose that's possible.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 23, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Social Security and the Constitution in Exile

A phrase we're likely to hear more of, especially as we head into a Supreme Court nomination fight, is "The Constitution in Exile." This catch-phrase comes from a previous Supreme Court nominee, the original right-wing pothead, Douglas Ginsburg writing in 1995, and refers to to the idea that the "true Constitution" is found in decisions such as Lochner v. New York, invalidating wage and hour regulations, and the decisions that invalidated the early New Deal, before the dramatic 1937 switch on the court that began to uphold some of FDR's legislation. With that switch, these scholars and jurists now argue, the true constitution was "exiled," and must now be restored.

Jeffrey Jamison, writing on the blog of the American Constitution Society, has a good summary of the Constitution in Exile argument as it has evolved, and particularly hints that certain recent and potential judicial nominees may be adherents of the "Constitution in Exile" theory. Janice Rogers Brown, for example, has referred contemptuously to "The Revolution of 1937."

I won't try to say much about this, since I'm no constitutional scholar. I did, however, recently read G. Edward White's The Constitution and the New Deal
, which made the argument that the shift in 1937 was not as dramatic as it has generally been thought to be, and that it is wrong to characterize it as a shift toward liberalism.

But a point that I have not seen discussed is the connection between the Constitution in Exile and Social Security. It is simply this: the case that marks "the Revolution of 1937" was the case upholding the Social Security Act, in Steward Machine Company v. Davis.

I noticed today on the wonderful History News Network site a short article about the arguments that Robert Jackson, later to be a distinguished Justice himself, made before the Court in Steward as Assistant Attorney General. They make the case for Social Security as well as it needs to be made today.

I hope that when the next Supreme Court nomination finally occurs, the debate will not focus almost exclusively on the Court's position on social issues such as Roe, Griswold, gay marriage and sodomy, affirmative action, etc. The economic role of the federal government is now deeply in question, and the Constitution in Exile judges, just like the Social Security privatizers, want to roll back the clock a lot futher than 1973 or 1961.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

The Bard Prison Initiative

A long time ago, I wrote a short post about guest-lecturing in a class at New York's Eastern Correctional Facility, through the Bard Prison Initiative. In the New York Times Magazine this weekend, Ian Buruma writes about teaching two classes -- on 19th and 20th Century Japanese history, no less -- through the same program.

I highly recommend it. Buruma is one of the great, humane writers of our time, with a measured, Orwellian tone and a vast intellectual range.

It's also worth considering, again, just why it is that this kind of prison education is virtually nonexistent outside of the Bard program at Eastern. In one of the most short-sighted of the many short-sighted decisions of the mid-1990s, Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, which had made possible thousands of academic programs. The logic, as Buruma puts it, was that if 100,000 low-income students couldn't get Pell Grants, it was "unfair" for incarcerated people to get them.

This is reminiscent of the logic that Social Security is unfair to African-Americans because they don't live as long. It is an early example of the twisted, bizarre uses of the idea of "unfairness" in right-wing rhetoric. Problems that are not entirely unsolvable (increase Pell Grants, improve health care or African-Americans) become redefined as if they are constant variables, which create an "unfairness" to be dealt with by eliminating benefits for someone else.

And, finally, if Max Kenner, the young founder of the Bard Prison Initiative, isn't in the next group of MacArthur Fellows, then what's the point of that program?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

The Next Ross Perot will be a Democrat

I was inclined to go easy on David Brooks this weekend. Why? For one thing, I had a moment that kind of made me feel like it's David Brooks's blue state caricature and we just live in it: At the Whole Foods, they now offer bags of what look basically like Fritos or Bugles -- reconstituted, molded corn chips. Except they have now been relabled "Polenta Chips," and sell for $4.99 for a 5 oz. bag.

And, more to the point, I basically agreed with Brooks' point on Saturday that "a leader will arise" who will speak about the deficit and fiscal irresponsibility in a way that is as compelling as Ross Perot, possibly more so.

So I was basically nodding along with Brooks's column, even choosing to overlook his characterization of the new cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug bill as some sort of accounting oversight, as opposed to information that was fully known, easily figured out by any member of Congress who wanted to know, and probably the largest systematic fraud in human history. ($900 billion is even beyond the Ebbers/Scrushy/Lay zone.)

But this sentence turned me back:

[This new leader] is going to slam Democrats who loudly jeer at Republican deficits but whose own entitlement proposals would make the situation twice as bad.

And what entitlement proposals are those, exactly? Not John Kerry's. Not Hillary Clinton's or Evan Bayh's. I worry that such a sentence passes by most readers without a moment's hesitation. We take it as a given that even if the Republicans are bigger spenders than they said they would be, the Democrats must be even worse. If the Republican Medicare plan will cost $1.2 trillion, then it is assumed that the Democrats' must have had a $2.2 trillion plan.

This makes me angry -- not only at Brooks, but at Democrats for failing to press this point every single day. Back when the Medicare bill was on the floor and I was just starting this blog, I argued that the Democrats, rather than proposing a $1 trillion prescription drug benefit, should have proposed something that cost less and did much more, such as the Clinton bill of 2000, which at the time cost $253 billion and even three years later would certainly not have cost more than the $400 billion claimed cost of the Bush bill, while doing much more. Such an alternative would have put the handful of real conservatives, who were being told by their leaders that if they didn't vote for the Republican bill, the Democrats would sweep in with something even bigger, in a very awkward position. But now that the real cost of the Bush bill is $1.2 trillion, I realize that I was wrong: the Democrats were perfectly responsible, and did propose a bill that cost less and did more than the Bush bill. And because it contained some real cost controls, its cost was not likely to escalate much beyond that.

There is no reason that the "leader who arises" should not be a Democrat. We have nothing to apologize for, certainly not in the department of huge, out of control government programs that don't deliver what's promised.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Have You No Sense of Irony, Sir?

For some reason, I've recently been reading the Powerline blog, the right-wing Minnesota lawyer-lobbyist's blog that claims credit for Rathergate. Their latest cause is defending what was probably just a "young and irresponsible" statement, to the effect that Jimmy Carter was "on the other side" in the war on terrorism.

Their evidence the other day was this:

Henry Kissinger observed that the Carter administration had managed the extraordinary feat of having achieved, at one and the same time, "the worst relations with our allies, the worst relations with our adversaries, and the most serious upheavals in the developing world since the end of the Second World War."

Presumably this Kissinger quote precedes the 2000 election. Aren't all three of these factors the very things in which the backers of the current president take the greatest pride???

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Taking The Right Too Seriously?

By far the most interesting passage in David Kuo's article in Beliefnet on his disillusionment with the White House Faith-Based Initiative is this:

3) Liberal antipathy magnified the Initiative's accomplishments.

Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it "a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government." When we helped Boston's historic Old North Church (of Paul Revere fame) get new windows through a historic preservation grants program at the Department of the Interior, the clamor was the same. The net effect of all the jabbering was the appearance that great progress was being made.

Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done -- especially compared to what was promised -- there is no telling what might have happened...or what might still happen.

His point is not that the opposition was wrong -- although he obviously believes that -- but that the fact that liberals took the faith-based initiative so seriously allowed the White House to get away with actually doing very little of what it promised. It got credit with the religious community not for its achievements, but simply for antagonizing liberals. If they're so agitated, we must be doing something, they said, in effect.

Is he right? My first thought was that his examples were silly: Did anyone really oppose a historic preservation grant for the Old North Church? Well, apparently they did, even though the church's ratio of historical tourists to current congregants is about 3000:1. This is the kind of thing I'm completely unable to get worked up about, even though I'm sure it's the camel's nose under the slippery slope and all that. But I think Kuo's point, which is that the faith-based initiative skillfully distracted liberals with fairly irrelevant symbolic fights, allowing the White House to avoid the actual financial and ethical commitment to "compassionate conservatism" is probably well taken.

This is an example of liberals' "policy literalism" on the other side. If we were to propose something like the faith-based initiative, it would be because we literally wanted to deliver services through churches and thought that religious groups needed to play a bigger role in social services. When the Bush-DeLay crowd proposes such a thing, it's because they want to make sure they get the votes of people who believe this thing. They themselves don't give a shit: "White House indifference" is Kuo's diagnosis.

Shortly after the Gingrich takeover of Congress, a colleague of mine said, "You should never underestimate the degree to which they don't give a shit. It's their strength." A decade of observation later, I think that aphorism is about 80% true. "They" -- the particular faction of the Republican party that currently holds power -- give a shit about a few things: Taxes. They don't like taxes. Lawsuits. Social Security. Regulation. The minimum wage. As a college classmate of mine's father once said, after a few martinis, "There hasn't been a good day in this country since Franklin Roosevelt became president." Those are their core beliefs. And I do believe that some portion of the right feels very strongly about abortion. The rest of it , though -- "compassionate conservatism," anti-gay-marriage, anti-small government, Medicare prescription drug benefits -- are all just rhetorical means to an end.

It is a subtle difference, but liberals have to respond in different ways to opponents who really believe that gay marriage is threatening to their value system, as opposed to those who don't give a shit about it, but believe there is a political advantage to be gained by stoking the fear and intolerance of others. Likewise, one responds differently to those who really want to break down the strict church-state barriers, as opposed to those who don't give a shit but want to draw votes from those who do.

This is also relevant to the debate over Jon Chait's argument from the New Republic that conservatives are deeply principled and unwavering, while liberals adopt to changed circumstances and emprical evidence. There's some truth to that, but that's not the whole story. I'll write a little more about that shortly.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack