Sunday, October 17, 2004

Strange Bedfellows

Politics makes strange bedfellows. As it becomes more and more apparent that President Bush is not a Conservative at all, but some mutated hybrid of Religious Right and Prarie Populism, many small government conservatives have decided to cast their lot with Kerry. Stuart Benjamin gives his reasons, as a libertarian, why other small-government conservatives are better off with Kerry in office.
1) First, on the issue of this President's policies, many commentators have ably pointed out the myriad ways in which this President has been a disaster for those who believe in limited government...A few of these commentators have listed Bush's tax cuts as the one bright spot for libertarians/conservatives/limited-government types, but tax cuts without spending cuts (or, as it turns out, with massive spending increases) aren't small government - they're big government combined with borrowing. The government reduces your taxes but takes out a big loan in the name of you and your family. Brad DeLong says we should call this a tax shift rather than a tax cut. He's right, although I would also call it mandated mortgaging.

What about the "starve the beast" hypothesis (i.e., that reductions in taxes will force reductions in spending)? Two big problems: first, as long as we are running up deficits (i.e., until the beast really is starved), then the government is still taking out loans in our name. Second, "starve the beast" is a nice theory, but in reality it has never happened. In fact, William Niskanen of the Cato Institute has shown that decreases in taxes are associated with increases in spending, and vice-versa.

2) "Fine," some libertarian friends have said to me, "I admit that Bush has been bad for limited government, but won't electing Kerry be worse for our interests?" As for the short- and medium-term, the great likelihood is that the answer is no. Unless something truly disastrous happens to the Republican party (e.g., finding out that Osama Bin Laden received money from the RNC), it is going to retain control of the House of Representatives. Indeed, it is very likely that it will gain seats in the House, as it starts from a big presumptive gain resulting from the redistricting in Texas. As for the Senate, it is conceivable that the Democrats could regain control, but just about everything would have to break their way. The bottom line is that Republicans will almost certainly control one chamber, and likely will control both. This means that a President Kerry is going to be dealing with a hostile Congress - and Tom Delay is not going to roll over. In other words, we are likely to get the same sort of gridlock that we had from 1995 to 2000, with no significant new spending and no significant new tax cuts - greater fiscal sanity and a smaller government. Again, this is not just pie in the sky. Niskanen also showed that divided government is associated with lower government spending.

3) But what about the long-term interests of those who want a limited government? Here we come to the most important point that many have overlooked: if limited-government types vote for Bush and he is reelected, then the obvious conclusion for any savvy political strategist is that Republicans can take these voters for granted and thus ignore their interests. The reality of politics is that you are always working at the margins - trying to increase turnout of your base or add swing voters. If I am a political strategist who knows that a group of voters will stick with my candidate no matter what, I'd be foolish to recommend that he respond to their concerns in any way. What's the point of doing that, as a matter of political strategy? If I were Karl Rove (or whomever) and Bush won in 2004, I would tell any future Republican candidate that he can do anything he wants on the size of government, because Bush proved that limited-government types will still vote Republican.

The only way to send a message to future Republican candidates is for Bush to lose in part because of the defection of limited-government types. And, if we don't send that message, I fear that we will be in the political wilderness for a long time.

The bottom line, in my view, is that people who believe in the old Republican credo of limited government had better vote for John Kerry.

It goes beyond Benjamin. Reagan staffer Doug Bandow has also expressed discontent. And The New Republic's front page story next issue will feature Newt Gingrich aide Robert George explaining why he can't vote for GWB. Andrew Sullivan has already decided not to vote for Bush and is on the verge of endorsing Kerry. John Eisenhower (Ike's son) has endorsed Kerry. Most importantly, from my perspective (and I'm the ONLY person to think this), is that Daniel Drezner has now said it's 80% likely he'll vote for Kerry this election.

It's a shame these aren't getting more press. The point that Bush is not governing as a Conservative, but, as I said before, like a mutant should seriously bother his potential supporters (well, maybe not Jerry Falwell. I should say the intellectually HONEST supporters). This is especially important becausde many of these voters ARE uncomfortable with Bush, they're just equally or more uncomfortable with Kerry. Noting that many people with uncontestable Conservative credentials are supporting Kerry could make these people more comfortable giving Kerry a chance (or at least a second look). But most people will barely hear anything about it.

Oh, and The New York Times endorsed Kerry. Stunning. But Kerry in terms of overall circulation, Kerry has 5x the amount of newspaper endorsements as Bush does, and has picked up some key swing state endorsements in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Maine, and Missouri. The Associated Press gives a good list of current endorsements that clearly shows Kerry's advantage.

Finally, reading the NYT's endorsement made me remember something I've been wanting to say for a long time. They talk about how Bush has been pushing "ideological, activist judicial nominee[s]" on to the senate floor. Conservatives, of course, claim that liberal judges are the "activists" and these judges will "strictly interpret" the constitution. Can we just agree that, at this point, an "activist" judge is "one who makes a decision I disagree with"? Because that is all it appears to mean, judging from the rhetoric I hear on both sides. I have my own opinions on what "activist" really means (and to what degree it's acceptable), but I am SICK of hearing every single decision that vaguely annoys the Family Research Council (or on the other side, People for the American Way) being tarred as "Judicial Activism."


Randomscrub said...

While you do make many valid criticisms of Bush here, I don't see how that should prompt one to vote for Kerry. From a small gov't perspective on the race, Bush is bad, but Kerry has to be worse. Kerry has pledged to increase taxes, and he's promised trillions in new spending on everything from health care to homeland security. I do agree that voting for Bush would probably be worse in the short term, but I think it's a bit galling to vote for a candidate specifically because he's impotent. Electing Kerry will prove to the Democratic Party that his spend heavily platform works. Either way, it's a loss, but with Kerry you lose on income taxes and spending if (as I'm sure you hope) he gets a congressional majority. I realize Bush's spending record sucks, and it bugs me. But it doesn't bug me nearly enough to make me vote for anyone else.

David Schraub said...

I think the problem comes in terms of what "small government conservatism" means. Basically, which is a better manifestation of Small Government, "tax and spend" or "tax cut and spend"? I would say the former, because as Benjamin points out, spending in debt is essentially just forcing a mortgage on America's children. Now, MAYBE it's possible that Kerry would be even worse than Bush IF he had a majority in congress, as you suggest(and you're right that I would like a Democratic Majority). But you and I both know it isn't going to happen. I'm skeptical that the Dems will take back the Senate, and the House is well out of reach. So you can rest rather easy in knowing that the house, at least, is safely in Tom DeLay's hands and Kerry will never be able to pass a spending bill ever. Yes, Kerry's impotence annoys me (though it should thrill you, objectively). But being stuck in the mud is better than careening off a cliff. If voting for impotence annoys you, then consider it a "vote for divided government" or a "vote for accountability."

Oh, and "small government conservatism" goes beyond economic issues. It also talks about SOCIAL issues, and FMA is an insult to that tradition.

H said...

I think David is right on social issues. It's abundantly clear that this administration is using social policy as a way to consolidate its base (FMA, Abortion, Sex Ed, Faith Based Initiatives, and arguably the PATRIOT act). Kerry espouses far less invasive social policies. For me, that's the selling point, because I've always considered it more important not to interfere in social policy than economic policy.

But as for economic policies, I'd be OK with seeing a Kerry tax increase, because I believe two basic things about a hypothetical Kerry administration: it would (1) not be able to pass the proposed massive spending plans w/o significant compromise and (2) all things considered, it would actually spend less than the Bush administration. Kerry's spending plans aren't particularly good, but all things considered, they're the lesser of two evils.