Monday, December 30, 2002

Jonathan Chait points out that the Bush administration is worse the even John DiIulio said. It isn't just that it is driven by politics over policy. Its that it has abdicated the role of creating policy to business think-tanks and has, instead, devoted itself only to the question of how to sell these pre-generated policies to the American public. In other words, the Bush administration is nothing more than a bought-and-paid for PR firm.
WHY THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION IS WORSE THAN DIIULIO SAID by Jonathan Chait ... But the total dominance of politics over policy in the Bush administration is not merely a function of personality; it is a reflection of deeper structural forces. Put simply, the administration is subservient to economic pressure groups to an extent that surpasses any administration in modern history. Whereas the Clinton administration was regularly forced to weigh policy demands from competing interests within the Democratic coalition, the Bush administration's presumptive allegiance in virtually every case is to corporate America. It is simply unnecessary for the White House to generate its own policies because that role has been filled by business lobbyists. Bush has abdicated to K Street the basic functions of domestic governance, not merely in cases where K Street's interests run roughshod over liberal principles, but in cases where they contradict conservative principles as well. Indeed, the simple rule for understanding Bush's economic policy is that in virtually every instance, whether tacking right or left, the president sides with whatever interest group has the strongest stake in the issue at hand. The result is an administration whose domestic actions persistently, almost uniformly, fail to uphold the broader public good.
Chait goes on to point out that Democrats are not free from being paid for shills for various special interests. But the Democrats, as a whole, represent so many different constituencies, both monied and not, that they reach a sort of "Democratic Pluralism" that reduces the influence of one special interest group over another. In other words, the corruption of individual party members does matter so long as the competing corruptions effectively cancel each other. But, Chait argues, the Republicans are essentially wholly-owned subsidiaries of a very narrow range of business interests. Thus, those interests overwhelm any other policy considerations. It is therefore not surprising at all that DiIulio had difficulty engaging the White House in policy discussions. DiIulio didn't understand that the policies of this White House have already been decided in board-rooms and think-tanks. It just remained to figure out the strategy for how to sell those policies and that is where Karl Rove gets all his power. Chait makes one very interesting comment about Clinton's alleged fund-raising sleezyness:
This can be seen in the behavior of the Clinton administration. At the time, the president's dogged pursuit of soft money was seen both by liberals and conservatives as the apex of political sleaze. But, in fact, the breadth of Bill Clinton's fund-raising is precisely what insulated his decision-making from undue influence. In 1993, Clinton infuriated his labor allies, but pleased his business backers, by lobbying for and signing NAFTA. In 1995, he delighted trial lawyers, but angered lobbyists for business (especially in the Democrat-friendly technology industry), by vetoing a GOP-backed bill making it more difficult for investors to sue based on misleading financial reports. As surpluses emerged in the last few years of his term, Clinton stymied both the tax-cutting urges of his business allies and the spending urges of his labor allies by insisting on debt reduction. The point is not that Clinton got every policy decision right but that the discordant nature of his support put him in a position where, on most issues, it was at least possible for him to make a detached judgment on the merits. That is precisely what Bush cannot do.
In other words, Clinton's extreme (for a Democrat) form of fundraising from any and all comers actually made it easier for him to resist the individual corruption of any one of those contributers. None of them could afford to threaten him with the withdrawal of support if he didn't do what they want because he had many other sources of funding that could fill in the gaps if they did. It's an interesting paradox: by selling himself to everyone, in the end, no individual or group owned a controlling interest in what Clinton did. He was thus freerer to pursue his own agenda. The same cannot be said for Dubya. I can remember during the 2000 campaign thinking that Bush was being sold more like an IPO than a presidential candidate. A lot of fancy promises, but very little substance to back it up. Why? Because the point was not to get him in their for any particular political belief but because he could become a useful conduit for the desires of his paymasters. So far, the investment has paid off handsomely. It remains to be seen though if, like the chimerical nature of the dot-com bubble, Dubya will someday burst and take down a lot of people with him. Chait concludes with the question of why so few have called this administration on its actions.
But caution has generally proved to be unnecessary for this White House because the public so rarely has focused upon Bush's domestic agenda. The reason for this lies in another phenomenon of political science: Bad policies can exist when they have concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. For instance, the public should be outraged at steel tariffs, but in fact most people are not because the cost to each individual is very low. The people who care the most about steel tariffs are those who work in the steel industry, and they're all for tariffs. Likewise, few people have any desire to run long-term deficits in order to provide a large tax cut for the affluent. But the people who stand to gain the most from such tax cuts tend to appreciate them a great deal, and they express their appreciation, among other ways, in the form of political donations that can be used to help convince the majority that the tax cuts are actually aimed at them.
Translation: it's much easier for a rich man to get excited over a big tax cut than a poor man to get upset about his small share of the cost of that cut.
On virtually every issue that has come before him, Bush has sided with the intense preferences of the well-organized minority. Judging from his lofty polls and his bulging coffers, the strategy has worked brilliantly. In a democracy, of course, you can never completely discount the possibility that the majority will eventually focus on the fact that it is getting persistently fleeced. From what we've seen of Karl Rove, though, he doesn't appear very worried.


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