Topic: Government and Politics

How Smart Should a President Be?

William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University.” There’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.

Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here.) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy.)

It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.

Moreover, the IQ data are highly dubious, especially the further back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK was brighter than John Adams and James Madison, who didn’t need ghostwriters to make them seem smart. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.

In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”

However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was very interested in ideas and anyone who’s seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that his intellect was nothing to sneer at.  His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.

The Revival of Small-Government Conservatism?

For nearly eight years, Republicans either looked the other way (or greedily joined in) as the Bush administration increased the size, cost, and intrusiveness of government. The largest increase in domestic discretionary spending since the Great Society, a massive new entitlement program, greater federal control over education — big-government conservatism was on the march with barely a squeak of protest.

But in proposing a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, the Bush administration may finally have found the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is years overdue, but congressional Republicans are finally learning to say “no.”  And its not just the usual advocates of limited government like Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) who are outraged by the biggest government intervention in our economy since FDR. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), who acquiesced to — even twisted arms to push through — every big-government proposal that the Bush administration wanted, has suddenly found a spine. Even such go-along, get-along Republicans as Sens. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Jim Bunning (R-TN) have not been able to swallow this one.  To hear Sen. Bunning describe the administration’s proposal as “socialism” is, well, amazing. 

Meanwhile, grass-roots activists and talk radio are in open rebellion. People are actually suggesting that government isn’t the solution, government is the problem. How long has it been since we’ve heard that around this town?

The Bush administration will probably succeed in pushing through their proposal. But if the bailout succeeds in finally reigniting the fires of small-government conservatism, it may be worth the price.

Mark Sanford on Bailouts

South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who spoke last Saturday night to our Cato Club 200 retreat, has a great column in the Washington Post today on the federal government’s accelerating tendency to respond to every crisis with an expansion of its powers. He writes:

An ever-expanding scope of federal commitment and power is not what made this country great. Expanded power in one place comes at a cost in other places. American cornerstones such as individual initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit — born in free and open societies with private property rights and the rule of law — have never fit particularly well within the context of an ever-growing federal government.

For 200 years, the “business model” in our country has rested on a simple fact: that while one may reap rewards from taking risks, one should also be prepared to face the consequences of those risks. Some of the proposed actions with regard to the credit market turn that business model on its head — absolving those who took too much risk, or bought too much house, from the weight of their own choices. If Congress passes the proposed bailout, we will be destined to have far greater problems in time, leaving those who are prudent in their finances to foot the bill for those who are not.

He goes on to appeal to the wisdom of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Edward Gibbon in cautioning Congress not to put us on the path to “decline and fall.”

Bonus: Mark Sanford on Real ID here (podcast audio), here (speech video) and here (speech PDF).

Another $700 Billion

For the second time in six years, the Bush administration has asked Congress for nearly unlimited authority without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such authority.

In making the case for the Iraq war resolution, according to Senator John D. Rockefeller, “the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

As it turned out, of course, no “weapons of mass destruction” were ever discovered.

The skeletal proposal for the Troubled Asset Relief Program states that “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency. The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this act without regard to any other provision of law regarding public contracts” – again without an independent professional review of the evidence that led the administration to request such extraordinary authority.

In both cases, the administration requested urgent congressional approval of these measures when members of Congress were anxious to go home to run for reelection. And a final irony: the total direct cost of the Iraq war to date has been about $700 billion, the same amount that the administration has requested to buy bad mortgages.

“Wakeriding” the GSE Collapse

On the WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve reviewed some of the bills introduced and moved in Congress the last few days to respond - or at least react - to the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

These bills deserve skepticism - the market for political posturing and other silliness is obviously high right now - but they might not all be bad … .

In Creating Medicare Part D, Republicans Slit Their Own Throats

As a political expedient designed to give George W. Bush a second term in the White House, Karl Rove convinced, cajoled, and browbeat congressional Republicans into creating Medicare Part D, the program’s new prescription drug benefit and the largest expansion of the entitlement state since the creation of Medicare itself. One of the Bush administration’s selling points was that creating a prescription drug benefit in Medicare would allow the GOP to steal the health-care issue from Democrats. Instead, Republicans may have done little more than slit their own throats.

An article in Politico.com (“Big pharma veers to the left”) discusses how Part D has delivered the pharmaceutical industry – long a supporter of Republican congressional candidates – into the hands of Democrats:

The growth of state and federal health care programs — including President Bush’s prescription drug plan for seniors — means that today about half of the pharmaceutical market is controlled by government.

That got the industry rethinking about how to position itself politically. And the future seems to be in ensuring that the government programs remain robust and generous.

Whereas big-pharma political giving used to run 3-1 in favor of Republicans, it is now running even between the two political parties.

Isn’t the whole point of selling out your principles that you’re supposed to get something in return?

Slow Learner

Newt Gingrich tells the Washington Post, “We have now launched big-government Republicanism.” Referring to the Bush administration’s bailout-and-takeover plan for the financial sector, he said, “If we saw France do this, Italy do this, we would have thought it was crazy.”

He has a point. But some of us identified “big-government conservatism” as the operating system of the current Republican party a long time ago. I wrote about it in the Australian in early 2003 and in the Washington Post in late 2003. Or check out Bill Niskanen’s comments in this 2004 Los Angeles Times article. Of course, Ed Crane saw it coming in 1999. And Mike Tanner wrote a whole book about it – Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution – in 2007.

Or you could read Mike Tanner’s critique of “Gingrich’s Big Government Manifesto” back in 2006.