Saturday, January 31, 2004


Free Lunch Conservatism

I agree with Nick Confessore's observation (also made here) that President Bush's spending policies make perfect sense if you stop thinking of him as a fiscal conservative. Rather, he is a social and religious conservative who also happens to be a very canny politician and who believes in doing whatever is necessary to stay in power. Bush has hit on the perfect formula for doing this: free lunch conservatism:

The key concept is not that Bush is a traditional small-government conservative -- which would involve difficult and politically costly policy trade-offs -- but that he and his party have consistently and unabashedly used the mechanisms of government to reward and enrich key allies, mainly business interests, wealthy individuals, and -- to a lesser extent -- religious conservatives.

Sometimes this has involved traditionally conservative mechanisms, such as cutting taxes or reducing regulation. Sometimes it's involved traditionally liberal methods, such as new government spending. There has been no consistent principle involved, except the determination to stay in power. Nor has there been much attention to the long-term effects of the inherent contradictions in such a policy. So the administration passed a Medicare "reform" that buys off seniors with a drug benefit and hands billions of dollars in subsidies and government spending to HMOs, drug companies, and doctors -- all while specifically prohibiting cost-saving measures like using federal bargaining power to reduce the price of pharmaceuticals. The result is -- all at once -- generous corporate pork; a massive entitlement program; and deregulation. It's a combination that boosts the GOP's ability to stay in power in Washington. But the resulting cost -- ballooning health care costs that in turn will further balloon the deficit -- gets kicked down the road. If a Democrat president is elected to clean up the mess, that's about all he'll be able to accomplish before the next Republican is elected.

Put in these terms, most of Bush's fiscal decisions during his Presidency make perfect sense. They may not be good policy, but they are good politics, especially if the goal is to win a second term, and your governing motto is apres moi, le deluge.

But wait, you might object, how can this be good politics? The election of 2004 may turn out to be very close if the economy doesn't recover soon. The key point, as articulated by political scientist William Riker (no, not the Star Trek first officer) many years ago, is that the most efficient way to stay in power is to form a coalition of approximately 51 percent, not 90 percent. The reason is that if you plan to stay in power by distributing money from your enemies to your allies, you want to give your allies as much as you can to keep them on your side. The spoils of power must be spread more thinly the larger your coalition gets, but you can lay it on thicker if your coalition is smaller. The sweet spot is a coalition of exactly 51 percent. Conversely, the smaller your opposition, the less resources they have to bleed that you can distribute to your allies; so you don't want them too small. The magic number for your opponents, it turns out is 49 percent.

Does this sound familiar? A recent New York Times op-ed by former Al Gore speech writer Daniel Pink showed that the majority of Bush Red states were net recipients of federal largesse, while the majority of Gore Blue states were net givers. Bush has formed a coalition of states that mostly suckle at the national teat, paid for disproportionately by his political adversaries, states that vote Democratic.

I know that many liberals and progressives like to comfort themselves with the notion that President Bush is not very intelligent. This continues to be the most dangerous myth about the man. He is, in fact, quite shrewd and cunning. He's just not interested in public policy debates. (Remember, there's more than one way to possess intelligence.) The term "Mayberry Machiavelli" is entirely apt, although I suspect that for many lefties the use of the term "Mayberry" suggests that he is a dumbed down version who isn't quite as smart as he thinks he is. This is, I repeat, a dangerous delusion. George W. Bush is a political animal par excellence. Liberals and progressives argue that he can't be very smart because his policies are so stupid. But what they don't understand is that Bush is not particularly interested in good policy in their sense of the word; good policy is always secondary to staying in power. The policies he has adopted make sense if you start with the assumption that he wants to cement a durable 51 percent majority coalition using federal pork and redistributive programs as a central ingredient.

Recently David Bernstein of the Volokh Conspiracy wondered aloud why liberals don't like George W. Bush more since it seems clear that he likes to spend lots of government money, particularly on programs like education and drug benefits that liberals should like. The answer by now should be clear: George W. Bush doesn't like to spend government money in ways that liberals think are wise and good for the country's long term interests. (For example, liberal Dems tend to think that No Child Left Behind is underfunded and uses the wrong incentives, while the recent Medicare bill has too much privitization and will shift too much money to drug and insurance companies) Rather, Bush likes to spend lots of money (and redistribute lots of money from liberal states) in ways that satisfy core Republican constituencies and help keep him and the Republican party in power.

From the standpoint of pure power politics, the objection to Bush's strategy is whether he can keep it going long enough to get reelected and, if reelected, whether the Republicans will be punished in the 2008 and 2012 elections when the bill starts to come due. Most liberals who fulminate about these unwise policies believe that eventually the Republicans will be punished. But I am not so sure. Bush may be counting on the fact that no one will remember that the fiscal crisis of 2008 or 2012 is largely his fault, just as Reagan does not get enough blame for his huge deficits and deregulatory policies that helped foster the huge S&L scandal later on. Moreover, Bush may be counting on the fact that even if the Democrats are returned to office for a short time, they will find themselves largely devoted to acting like adults and cleaning up the mess Bush has created. The fiscal discipline required will not be popular, and thus it will not help them form a majority coalition through spending in the way that Bush has done. Thus, Bush may believe that he and his party will escape most of the blame for any fiscal problems his policies create down the road because (1) the public's memory is short, (2) the Democrats will be prohibited from making any new spending initiatives that would gain them a new majority coalition because of the huge deficits Bush has created, and (3) the image of the Republicans as the party of fiscal discipline will remain firmly ingrained in the public's imagination.

Many liberals have believed that Bush's deficits are designed to "starve the beast," i.e., to prevent the Democrats from spending money on egalitarian social and economic programs. What they have not sufficiently considered is that the "starve the beast" approach has another goal besides the promotion of an anti-New Deal/Great Society ideology. It seeks to keep the opposition from using the public purse in the future to create their own 51 percent coalition in the same way that Bush is now soaking (mostly) Blue states to pay (mostly) Red states. If you stop thinking about what Bush is doing in terms of ideology and start thinking about his actions in terms of pure power and how to maintain it, he doesn't seem so stupid after all. The Democrats fail to understand this at their peril.


I know that many liberals and progressives like to comfort themselves with the notion that President Bush is not very intelligent.
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