Topic: Government and Politics

A “West Wing” Rerun?

Peter Funt, son and heir of “Candid Camera” creator Allen Funt, writes that this year’s presidential race is shaping up like the final season of NBC’s “The West Wing”:

Good-looking congressman in his mid-40s, married with two young children, known for his inspirational speeches, comes from far behind to clinch the Democratic nomination and face an older, more experienced centrist Republican. If he wins, he’s America’s first non-Caucasian president.

Obama vs. McCain. But also “West Wing’s” Rep. Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) vs. Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Funt writes that the “West Wing” writers were in touch with Obama strategist David Axelrod as they created the Santos character, who was sort of a “test market” to “soften up millions of Americans for the task of electing the first minority president.” And he notes that Obama’s staffers “especially like the ending” of the “West Wing” plot, in which Santos narrowly defeats Vinick.

But Funt left out the part that might make Republicans more optimistic. After the libertarianish Vinick got the Republican nomination, former Democratic strategist Bruno Giannelli went to him and told him that with his image he could win a landslide victory: You, he said, “are exactly where 60 percent of the voters are: Pro-choice, anti-partial birth, pro-death penalty, anti-tax, pro-environment and pro-business, pro-balanced budget.”

The high point of the “West Wing” campaign was a debate that broke the rules of both presidential debates and television drama: The “candidates” threw out the usual formal debate rules and just questioned each other, and the actors improvised their questions and answers from a partially written script. They actually did two live performances that night, for the East Coast and the West Coast. 

And in the debate, Vinick showed those libertarian-center colors against Santos’s tired old big-government liberalism dressed up in appeals to hope. The morning after that debate aired on NBC, libertarian-leaning Republicans told each other, “if only a real candidate could articulate our values as well as a liberal actor did!” Asked about creating jobs, Vinick declared, “Entrepreneurs create jobs. Business creates jobs. The President’s job is to get out of the way.”  On alternative energy:

I don’t trust politicians to choose the right new energy sources. I believe in the free market. You know, the government didn’t switch us from whale oil to the oil found under the ground. The market did that. And the government didn’t make the Prius the hottest selling car in Hollywood. That was the market that did that. In L.A. now, the coolest thing you can drive is a hybrid. Well, if that’s what the free market can do in the most car-crazed culture on Earth, then I trust the free market to solve our energy problems. You know, you know, the market can change the way we think. It can change what we want. Government can’t do that. That’s why the market has always been a better problem-solver than government and it always will be.

His closing statement:

Matt has more confidence in government than I do. I have more confidence in freedom — your freedom; your freedom to choose your child’s school, your freedom to choose the car or truck that’s right for you and your family, your freedom to spend or save your hard-earned money instead of having the government spend it for you. I’m not anti-government. I just don’t want any more government than we can afford. We don’t want government doing things it doesn’t know how to do or doing things the private sector does better or throwing more money at failed programs because that’s exactly what makes people lose faith in government.

And after the debate, a Zogby poll found that even among the young, liberal-skewing viewers of “The West Wing,” Vinick had crushed Santos. Before the episode, viewers between 18 and 29 preferred Santos over Vinick, 54 percent to 37 percent. But after the debate, Vinick led among viewers under age 30, 56 percent to 42 percent. McCain could only dream of such numbers. Or maybe he should try sounding like Arnie Vinick.

“West Wing” producers were taken aback by the reactions of real live “voters” to their real live debate. After seven years of heroically portraying the honest, decent, liberal President Jed Bartlet–an idealized Bill Clinton who wouldn’t take off his coat, much less his pants, in the Oval Office–they weren’t about to let a crotchety old Republican beat their handsome Hispanic hero. So they conjured up a meltdown in a nuclear power plant that Vinick had supported, and Santos won the election.

If only the Republicans could nominate Arnie Vinick, and avoid an actual nuclear meltdown for the next six months, they might disrupt Peter Funt’s life-imitates-art speculations. But the writers–this time Obama’s fans in the mainstream media–might still insist on their own interpretation.

Libertarian Voters and the Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party is meeting in Denver to nominate a presidential candidate. Vying for the nomination are a former Democratic senator, a former Republican congressman, the author of the book Millionaire Republican, and a number of long-time party activists.

The party’s most successful presidential candidate was Ed Clark, who got 921,000 votes, about 1.1 percent, in 1980. Since then LP candidates have hovered around 400,000 votes.

Ron Paul’s surprising campaign this year and the increasing evidence about libertarian voters have generated more interest in the Libertarian Party nomination than usual, as witness the large and broad field of candidates.

So what’s the relationship between libertarian voters and the Libertarian Party? First, of course, members of the Libertarian Party are much more committed to the libertarian philosophy than are the libertarian-leaning voters David Kirby and I have identified in recent research. Our research indicates that 15 to 20 percent of American voters hold broadly libertarian views, yet the Libertarian Party has only once broken 1 percent in a presidential race. (More people have voted for LP candidates for lesser offices. The LP’s website claims that Libertarian candidates won 5.4 million votes in 1996.)

Libertarian voters have been more willing than other voters to vote for third-party candidates. In Beyond Liberal and Conservative, William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie found that libertarians gave 17 percent of their votes to “other” candidates in 1980, presumably independent John B. Anderson and Libertarian Clark, though Clark and Anderson received only about 8 percent of the national total. In 1992 libertarians gave Ross Perot 33 percent, knocking George H. W. Bush from 74 percent of the libertarian vote in 1988 to 35 percent in 1992. Again in 1996, libertarians voted more heavily for Perot (13 percent) than did the national electorate (8 percent). So libertarian-leaning voters seem open to voting for third-party candidates, and thus they should be fertile ground for the Libertarian Party.

I always wondered if most votes for Libertarian candidates were really just “none of the above” votes, cast not by libertarians or even libertarian leaners but just by disgruntled or flippant voters. Some evidence from our Zogby survey in 2006 suggests otherwise. David Kirby and I discussed some of the results from that survey in Cato Policy Report in January 2007.

We had previously used three questions from the American National Election Studies polls to define “libertarian voters.” The week of the 2006 election we commissioned Zogby International to ask the same three questions to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the election. Once again, we found that 15 percent of them could be defined as libertarian. But only 9 percent of those voters identified themselves as libertarian; most called themselves moderate or conservative.

In previously unpublished results, Zogby asked the same questions to a much larger Internet sample. In that panel, 17.6 percent of the libertarians identified themselves as such. And 8.6 percent identified themselves as supporters of the Libertarian Party.

My “none of the above hypothesis” seemed to be disproved by results from an over-sample in Arizona. There, 15 percent of our Internet sample gave libertarian answers to our three questions. And of those, 7 percent said they had voted for the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, and 23 percent had voted for the Libertarian candidate for governor. Of the total sample, 57 percent of the votes for the Libertarian Senate candidate came from libertarian voters, and 68 percent of the votes for the Libertarian candidate for governor came from libertarians. So in fact it appears, in the one case for which we have evidence, that most people who vote for Libertarian Party candidates in fact hold libertarian views.

So the challenge for this year’s Libertarian nominee is this: There’s widespread disillusionment with both parties. Ron Paul tapped into some of that in the Republican primaries and demonstrated that a libertarian candidate could raise a lot of money. Some 15 to 20 percent of the voters — 18 million to 24 million voters in 2004 — hold libertarian views. Those libertarian voters have previously demonstrated their willingness to vote for third-party candidates. In 2006, they swung sharply away from Republican candidates, yet the leading Democrats aren’t offering much to libertarian-minded voters. Perhaps most strikingly, 44 percent of voters said yes to Zogby’s question, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” So there would seem to be a huge potential audience for a Libertarian candidate who could raise money, get media attention, create online buzz, and present a compelling and articulate case for peace, freedom, and limited government.

Transatlantic Currents

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a serious, wonkish, deeply religious socialist who believes passionately in the power of government to do good for people — much like Hillary Clinton. For a decade or so he subordinated his own ambition for the top job, serving as a partner and adviser to a more charismatic political leader who reached the brass ring first — much like Hillary Clinton.

Finally, Tony Blair’s term ended and Brown got the big job. And he’s tanking. His approval rating (17 percent) is so low, he’s asking Bush for PR tips. The Labour Party not only lost the London mayor’s race, it just lost a seat in Parliament that it had held since World War II.

No wonder Rush Limbaugh was urging Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. She delivered Congress to the Republicans once before, in 1994. And if she is indeed a lot like Gordon Brown, she could do it again.

Will 2009 be 1965?

Forty four years ago today Lyndon Baines Johnson traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to deliver a speech that outlined the vision that would guide his administration. The speech may be read profitably today. 

LBJ began that spring day by stating a goal: “The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.”

The statement may be usefully compared to some earlier words about the purposes of American government: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words from the Declaration of Independence reflect the individualistic, natural rights philosophy of the American founders.

LBJ’s words reflected a fundamentally different philosophy, Progressivism. Individuals do not pursue happiness within a framework of rights; government pursues happiness for them or rather for “our” people. Johnson noted two means to that collective end: the life of our Nation and the liberty of our citizens. The first is tautological, the second is revealing. The liberty of the individual is not a goal of government; it is rather the means for the collective pursuit of happiness.   The Great Society would realize that collective happiness. In the Great Society , “men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” They put aside “unbridled growth” and “the demands of commerce” to fulfill “the hunger for community.” Mere business and trade do produce a “soulless wealth” that is far short of national aspiration.  

The reader who sees in LBJ’s words as call to secular spirituality through government are not far wrong. He said to the students and faculty of the University of Michigan: “You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.” The speech ends with the hope of a “new world,” a remaking of the nation.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened later, LBJ also claimed that “The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities.” Over the next decade, federal spending tripled.

Like LBJ, Barack Obama sees in politics and governing the possibility of secular transcendence. He is a far better orator than LBJ was, and his skills might well bring a third phase of Progressivism to the United States in 2009.

However, there is room for doubt. Obama lives in a different world than LBJ.

In 1965, Democrats held more than two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. As LBJ said on his inaugural night, “We can pass it all now.” Democrats may gain seats in Congress this year, but they will not have the same majorities LBJ had. President Obama will not say as LBJ did:“We can pass it all now.”

LBJ began his quest for the Great Society by cutting taxes. Obama will have to raise taxes to pursue his dreams. Excuse me, “our” dreams. Once “hope” and “change” cost real money, Obama may find Congress less willing to dream.

1n 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right almost always or most of the time. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently reported that ”positive views of the federal government are at their lowest point in at least a decade. Americans may not be in the mood for a new crusade to change the world through collective coercion.

People skeptical of the beneficence of the federal government have reasons to be pessimistic in 2008. Neither candidate shares their skepticism fully. But the spring of 1964 was much worse. Barack Obama may expect to renew the left’s quest for a secular spirituality rooted in politics and government, a religion to replace the older faiths. But 2009 is unlikely to be 1965.  

An Inexplicable Vote

Yesterday, the House passed the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act, which is essentially a hodgepodge of tax provisions, most of which extend existing tax breaks, such as the R&D tax credit and production incentives for renewable fuels.  There are also a few new items, such as a tax cut specifically for trial lawyers who work on a contingency basis.  These tax breaks are offset with $55 billion in tax increases on hedge fund managers and multinational corporations.

The bill passed easily – virtually all Democrats supported it, along with a few dozen Republicans.

As reported in CongressDaily (subscription required), Republican Congressman David Hobson supported the bill with the following justification:

“Probably the responsible vote is ‘no,’ but how do you explain that in a media that’s frantic over gasoline prices? Frankly, this has nothing to do with gasoline prices, but you can’t explain it, and it taxes the rich guys,” Hobson said.

Incidentally, Congressman Hobson hails from a “safe” GOP district in Ohio.  He has been in Congress since 1990 and has won reelection each cycle with no less than 61 percent of the vote.  He already announced that he will retire at the end of the current Congress. Nonetheless, for political reasons, he supported a bill he knows to be unmeritorious.

If a retiring congressman from a safe district cannot muster up the gumption to oppose an admittedly bad bill that contains a hefty tax hike, what does that mean for the state of Congress?

A Health Fed?

Lots of people, on both the Left and the Right, want government to plan economic activity.  Honest central planners recognize that highly concentrated and well-organized groups of producers and consumers typically hijack the plan’s new taxes, subsidies, and regulations.  The central planners are typically horrified to see what their carefully laid plans look like after being put through the political grinder.

Clever central planners look for ways to protect their plans from the influence of their fellow citizens.  For example, some planners seek to restrict their fellow citizens’ right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  (I have often remarked that if you can’t implement your plans without taking away someone else’s First Amendment rights, maybe you should rethink your plans.)

Other central planners seek to create special government bodies to execute their plans.  These bodies would have the power to tax, spend, and regulate, but their decisions could only be overturned by the people’s representatives with great difficulty.  Indeed, the very purpose of these bodies is to allow the planners to govern their fellow citizens without having to worry so much about the consent of the governed. 

Certain health care reformers have set about this path.  Across the political spectrum, observers acknowledge that government wields enormous power over America’s health care sector, and that those powers are often co-opted to serve private ends.  For example, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) recently remarked:

Congress is just not capable of being the manager of a health care system and yet it’s largely Congress today that has that responsibility. It hasn’t worked for the last 50 years. It’ll work even less in the next 50.

As a result, Daschle and others propose that Congress create a “federal health board” to manage the health care sector.  The Federal Health Board would do things like require you to purchase health insurance, dictate what kind of health insurance you will purchase, set the prices for health insurance and medical goods and services, etc..  In other words, the Federal Health Board would have the power to bankrupt corporations, to force doctors to change the way they do business, to deny medical care to patients, and to shift massive amounts of resources from one part of the country to another.  The problem is, some corporations, doctors, patients, and regional interests would try to block parts of The Plan, either on their own or through their representatives in Congress.

Since it would be so hard for the Federal Health Board to do its job with all that meddling by the governed, Daschle et alia want to insulate the Board from the political process.  Specifically, they want Congress to model a new Federal Health Board on the existing Federal Reserve Board.  That would enable the “health Fed” to focus on the public good, much like the Federal Reserve Board manages the money supply and guides interest rates without any of the unseemly pandering to special interests that goes on in Congress and other government bodies.  Because that’s how the Fed operates, right?

Maybe not.  Economist Allan H. Meltzer of Carnegie-Mellon University has read the transcripts of every meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee going back to 1913, and has written a two-volume history of the Federal Reserve.  Interviewed recently for one of Russ Roberts’ excellent EconTalk podcasts, Meltzer dismissed the idea that the Federal Reserve is immune from political pressures:

We talk about an independent Federal Reserve, but in reading and writing the history of the Federal Reserve, there are very few occasions since the 1930s when the Fed actually practiced independence.  There was the [Paul] Volcker era; he was certainly an independent central bank governor.  But [current Fed chairman Ben] Bernanke is anything but an independent central bank governor.  He is being leaned on by the Congress, and he accedes to them.  So even though he may worry about inflation … he’s … trying to respond to the short-term pressures instead of thinking ahead and thinking longer-term …

That brings him to the interest rate, because that’s the thing that people in the market see.  The Wall Street people …  put him under great pressure because they own a lot of bonds and mortgages.  And they believe that if he lowers the federal funds rate, it will lower the price of their mortgages and bonds, and they will have smaller losses.  And so they are on his back all the time to do more, to cut the interest rate that he controls, hoping that the rates that they see and own will go down, and their … losses will become smaller …

In reading the minutes of the Fed and watching what they do, the Fed has always been very much afraid of Congress.  And it took someone with the stamina and arrogance, in a way, of Volcker to be able to get around that … By the summer of 1982, [Congress was] facing an election and they were on his back to ease up … He wouldn’t admit that he was [easing up], but he did …

The idea of having a really independent agency in Washington, that’s just not going to happen … The Federal Reserve derives its power from Congress … The Fed’s power is delegated, and they are very much aware that Congress could always change that … [The Fed] manages to hang on to some measure or vestige of independence, but it is very much concerned – always – about what the Congress is doing, and doesn’t want to deviate very far from that.

What can’t come through in a transcription is that Meltzer chuckled at “the idea of having a really independent agency in Washington.”

So if the central planners seek to insulate their health care reforms from the political process, modeling a new health planning board on the Fed won’t achieve that goal.  That’s probably a good thing.  Power with accountability is dangerous enough.  Power without accountability is truly frightening. 

An important advantage of free-market health care reforms is that they provide accountability without allowing anyone to consolidate much power at all.  That seems a much happier state of affairs.

Fannie Mae’s Rent-Seeking Empire Expands

Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covers lobbyists for the Washington Post, reports:

Lorraine A. Voles, until recently communications director for the congressional office of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has joined Fannie Mae as a senior vice president.The move is a reunion of sorts. Voles, who was communications director to Al Gore when he was vice president, worked previously at the public relations firm Porter Novelli. There, her boss was Charles V. Greener, who is now Voles’s boss at Fannie Mae.Greener had been the mortgage finance giant’s senior vice president in charge of communications and is now chief of staff to Fannie Mae chief executive Daniel H. Mudd. Voles is taking his old job. Before he joined Porter Novelli, Greener was a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

That’s right: A former mouthpiece for Clinton and Gore is working quite happily for a former GOP spokesman – for a second time. Only in Washington.

One big happy family here in the Imperial City. Those who are paid to fight the red-blue wars, fight. Those who are paid to lobby both sides against the taxpayers, lobby. And as the McCain campaign is demonstrating, the most effective players can switch roles on a moment’s notice.

It’s relevant to note that Ms. Voles and Mr. Greener are now working for Fannie Mae, one of the most skilled rent-seekers in Washington and a pioneer in hiring top players from both parties. As a Cato study noted a few years ago, “The special governmental links that apply to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac yield little that is socially beneficial, while creating significant potential social costs.” And as an earlier Cato study (by financial analyst Vern McKinley, now a candidate for Congress) noted, “Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac preserve their privileged status through a multi-million-dollar lobbying effort that includes massive ‘soft money’ campaign contributions and the payment of exorbitant salaries to politically connected executives and lobbyists.” Ten years later, that’s still the bottom line.