Thursday, August 03, 2006

Defending Conservatives

Bob Burnett has been writing about the failure of conservatism on Huffington. I'd like to take issue with him.

His first point
Since the Reagan era, American conservatism has steadily gained strength. Indeed, for the five years of the second Bush Administration conservatism has been the only visible ideology in Washington.

Conservative domestic policy rests upon one central tenet: the federal government must be drastically reduced. Accordingly, the Bush Administration and an obedient Republican Congress slashed taxes. They assured the American people that, as a "natural" result of these cuts, two things would happen: the economy would flourish and the federal government would wither. But neither prediction proved accurate. The economy showed modest growth, which benefited only corporations and wealthy individuals; meanwhile, the real income of the average American family went down. And, the federal government didn't shrink; it grew.
There are a few big flaws in this argument. The first is that Bush (father and son) are Reagan Republicans. G. W. Bush ran on a platform of compassionate conservatism. This turns out to mean tax-cut and spend conservatism. Bush is a pro-defense, social conservative, not a Reagan/Libertarian. Bush is not a friend of limited government. In fact, two of his pet projects, No Child Left Behind, and the Medicare Drug Plan, were major expansions of big government. In most other spending, Bush has been to the left of Bill Clinton. Government didn't just grow on its own, it was allowed to grow by the lose fiscal policies of the Bush administration and by Bush's reluctance to veto spending bills.

Bush is a fan of tax cuts as economic stimulus and they have worked better than Burnett is willing to give credit for.

It doesn't help that Republicans only have a tiny majority in Congress and some of that is made up of RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). When Katrina hit, these are the Republicans who refused to give up non-vital projects in their own districts to help pay to help devastated areas. The Pork-Busters have been keeping track of these.

Burnett says:
During the last five years, conservatives discovered that while Americans rail against the federal government in the abstract, they actually like the programs it provides, such as Medicare and Social Security. They want their mail delivered on time and levees maintained to guard them from floods.
...but this is more an indictment of RINOs than conservatives. I'll agree with him about this but my solution would be to see some real conservatives at work instead of moderate/RINOs.

He also says:
Alan Wolfe observes that since the primary objective of conservatives was thwarted—they couldn't shrink the size of government—they settled for preventing it "from doing any good." From the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bush Administration eased federal regulations and reduced oversight responsibilities; the result was an across-the-board abandonment of the public interest. Conservatives abandoned a vital historic role of the federal government: protection of our rights.
This is hyperbole at its best. With the EPA, for example, Clinton signed some new standards as a going-away present. As is standard, the Bush administration put a hold on the new regulations pending review and eventually passed them. The regulations were never looser than during the Clinton administration. There have been other examples where tighter standards are called loose. The standards for fuel efficiency known as CAFE were tightened but not as much as Democrats would have liked.

Burnett's next point:
Simultaneously, conservatives used the resources of the federal government as a vehicle for unprecedented political patronage; strengthening the Republican Party by securing huge donations from corporations. Conservative control of government unleashed an unprecedented wave of venality, a hybrid form of plutocracy where the interests of corporations where given primacy over the rights of individuals. This bias had many forms: sole-source contracts given in Iraq, bribery of Administration and Congressional officials, heightened influence of lobbyists, and elimination of bipartisanship — creation of an atmosphere where fairness and cooperation are seen as character flaws.

With all that patronage money you would think that Republicans election campaigns were out-spending the Democrats. They aren't. I'm sure that he is referring to Haliburten when he complains about sole-source contracts in Iraq but independent reviews have agreed that they are the only company able to provide the services needed. Lobbyists are better-organized and they target the party in power but that does not mean that Democrats will be any better.

Bipartisanship works both ways. Don't forget that in 1993 the Clinton administration made new Democrats take an oath that they would not cooperate with Republicans on anything. For that matter, look at how the Democrats are treating Joe Leiberman because of his bipartisanship.

Burnett is convinced that the government, when well-run, is the best source for all things.
In Federal agency after agency, conservative Bush political appointees privatized jobs that formally had been done by agency employees. This resulted in deterioration of service and massive cost overruns.
Remember the flu vaccine shortage of 2004-2005? That came about because the federal government is the sole-supplier for certain vaccines. This was done during the Clinton administration to prove that the government was better at managing health care than private industry. It didn't work.

Burnett's faith in government is also part of his follow-up. This is his take on welfare reform.
Corresponding to their naïve disregard for the federal government, conservatives advocated their brand of Social Darwinism: "you're on your own." They insisted government has no responsibility to protect the rights or wellbeing of citizens; claimed that the market will take care of everyone.
A true conservative (the Libertarian sort) will point out that LBJ's war on poverty created an entire underclass who depended on the government and that this was a drag on general prosperity. In contrast, in a robust economy there are jobs for everyone who wants one eliminating the need for long-term dependency.

His mission statement for liberals is
From this foundation, the new liberalism needs to state the obvious: Americans need a responsible federal government and it's our common responsibility to pay for it. Liberals should reassert their belief that government can be a force for good, so long as it is well run. Not only must liberals be persons of integrity, they must provide the leadership that America desperately needs.
The operative phrase there is "so long as it is well run." This is where conservatives take issue with big government. A program may start but being well-run but with no competition and with the lure of empire-building they will not stay well-run. Further, a government program usually has the force of law behind it and a mountain of bureaucracy that makes changes near-impossible.

Burnett's two closing points

Finally, a new liberal ideology must address two other conservative beliefs: The first is that government should not regulate business; that this is the exclusive responsibility of the market. This is wrong, because an equitable American society requires the active intervention of the federal government to protect the rights and wellbeing of our citizens. A cornerstone of the new liberalism must be the primacy of individual rights over those of corporations and CEOs.

Liberals would gladly regulate business out of business. When Burnett talks about protecting the "primacy of individual rights" he really means collective rights. This can lead to absurdities such as the government suing Sears because they were not hiring enough women to work in the lawn-care department. It turned out that women don't want to work there but that didn't save Sears from millions in legal fees.

The second conservative belief that must be challenged is that the U.S. defense budget is sacrosanct. Americans have been brainwashed to believe that having the largest defense establishment in the world—spending $550 million per year on the Department of Defense—keeps us safe. Citizens must be taught to distinguish between big and smart. America can be protected even though DOD is drastically reduced. Money must be redirected from our military budget and used for vital needs such as the funding of our "first responders."

Until they changed their message to cut-and-run, the liberal reaction to the invasion of Iraq was that Bush hadn't sent enough troops, that he had tried to do it on the cheap. The truth is that Bush sent the troops that he could but, even after activating National Guard units, there are not enough troops to secure Iraq. Burnett would like to see the military cut further.

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