Topic: Government and Politics

In Education, Dem Win Is a Win for Smaller Government

Nine years ago, only a crazy man would have written the headline above. The Democratic Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions, brought us the money sinkhole known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the tuition-exploding Higher Education Act, and the crowned jewel of bureaucratic worthlessness and educational futility, the U.S. Department of Education.  In the meantime, the Republican Party fought to expel Washington from the classrooms where, like the out-of-control kid with the stink bombs who keeps everyone else from learning, it simply did not belong.

And then George W. Bush happened. Flinging around talk of “compassionate conservatism” and decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush, with the complicity of congressional Republicans more interested in legislative (read: political) victory than rational policy, gave us the No Child Left Behind Act. What did the law do? It forced all states to create math, reading, and science standards and tests, required detailed reporting, and then, to enable politicians to simultaneously claim both toughness and a love of local control, left it states to write their own standards, tests, and implement the law. Oh, and it authorized—and ultimately produced—big increases in federal education spending. In other words, it let politicians claim to be everything to all people, while massively increasing federal bureaucratic burdens and encouraging all states to set their standards as low as they could go. Not surprisingly, while we cannot with certainty attribute any specific results to NCLB, academic outcomes under it have been poor, with gains where there had previously been some slowing, and other scores just dropping.

So why the headline above? Because while president-elect Obama has been very clear that he wants to increase federal education spending yet again, he has also hinted that he would decrease NCLB’s rigidly bureaucratic requirements. In addition, while the teachers unions are a big threat if given federal power, they tend to like money without accountability, meaning that, yes, they’ll push the Dems to set the cash spigot on “deluge,” but they’ll also resist federal rules. Put simplistically, instead of Washington doing two terrible things, it will do only one.

Unfortunately, this will likely be just a short-term gain. In the long term, there is little doubt that Democratic control would lead to both profligate federal spending and more government meddling, though this time pushing progressive education ideas. But that is where the second and more critical component to resurrecting small government in education will hopefully come in: renewed Republican opposition to unconstitutional and educationally worthless federal education intrusion. If the GOP should have learned anything from its astonishing fall from grace and power during the Bush years, it’s that big government doesn’t work, and selling your soul to get it doesn’t get you re-elected. No prescription drug bill, $700 billion bailout, or No Child Left Behind Act, has kept the GOP in the Washington majority.

There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Republicans will learn this lesson; a big fight is no doubt coming between small-government realists and those committed to the Dem-light days of Bob Michel and Richard Nixon. If they do get the message, however, education, where for so long the Republican Party was clear that the feds did not belong, would be the perfect place to start applying the painful lessons they have learned.

What Next for the Third Branch?

The new president will have a chance to significantly reshape the judiciary. President Bush managed to confirm only 321 judges—about 50 fewer than Presidents Reagan or Clinton—so there are plenty of vacancies to fill. Moreover, Congress has not created any new circuit court positions since 1991, while federal appellate filings increased by about 50 percent since that time; only four percent more district judges have been created during the same period, while filings to those courts increased by about 25 percent. We can expect, perhaps even in the “first 100 days,” a new judgeship bill that will add to the vacancies President-elect Obama will have to fill. 56 percent of federal judges are now Republican appointees, and the Ninth Circuit (based in San Francisco and sprawling across nine western states) is the only federal appeals court with a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Obama will be able to change the former statistic and swing control of all but three circuits (of the thirteen) to Democratic appointees. And then, of course, we have the two or three Supreme Court nominations the new president will probably have in the next four years: Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter are each likely to be off the Court by 2012. It is not for nothing that pundits consider judges to be one of the most undervalued policy areas in this long, strange campaign.

Someone Should Have Warned Them

Shortly after the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006, I wrote in my book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big Government Conservatives Brought Down the Republican Revolution, that unless the Republican Party rejected Bush-style big-government conservatism and returned to its limited government roots “the 2006 elections are likely to be just a taste of things to come.”

Apparently, Republicans didn’t heed that message.  By almost every measure, government grew bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive under President Bush and the Republican Congress. John McCain may have rhetorically criticized government spending, notably earmarks, but consistently backed bigger and more activist government, whether backing the Wall Street bail-out or calling for a $300 billion bailout of delinquent mortgages. By most measures he supported only slightly less government spending than did Sen. Obama.

Exit polls show that Republican losses were heaviest among upscale suburban voters who tend to be economically conservative but socially moderate. These formally reliable Republican voters did not suddenly decide that they wanted a bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government. But, faced with the big-government status quo or big-government “change,” they opted for change.

Republicans now have two more years in the wilderness to decide whether or not they actually stand for limited government and individual liberty.  One wonders, whether this time they will hear the message.

To the Future: Good Advice from Jeff Flake

In Monday’s Washington Post Rep. Jeff Flake offers Republicans some good advice for the climb back:

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans….

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we’ve inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery….

In some respects, raising a new standard was made easier by yesterday’s rout. The Republican Party is not bound by election-year promises made by its presidential nominee. More important, the party is finally untethered from the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration.

Smaller Government Is More Popular Than Obama

Pollsters occasionally ask respondents questions along the lines of “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” As might be expected, the economic crisis and the repeated claim that the Bush administration has been tight-fisted and deregulatory have moved voters to the left on that question. But not as far as you might think. Ramesh Ponnuru recently summarized some of the latest evidence:

CBS pollsters have often asked, “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” On this question there seems to be a pro-government trend over the last dozen years — but we certainly don’t seem to be more pro-government than we were during the Reagan ’80s. In April 1976 the larger-government side had a four-point lead and in May 1988 a one-point lead. Polls from 1996 through Jan. 2001 showed an average lead of 20 points for the smaller-government side. By November 2003, however, the smaller-government side led by only 3 points, and in the latest poll (March-April) the sides are tied.

The same pattern shows up in the results of a similar Washington Post/ABC poll question. People swung to a smaller-government view in the 1990s and then swung back, but the results from June 2008 (50-45 percent for smaller government) are roughly the same as those from July 1988 (49-45).

But other indicators do not even find a clear pro-government trend for the last decade. Gallup, as well as ABC and the Washington Post, has asked for many years whether Americans think that government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Almost always most people fall on the conservative side of that question: in September 1992 by an eight-point margin; in October 1998 by 12 points; in September 2002 by 7 points; and in September 2008 by 12 points.

As I’ve noted before,

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes.

The Rasmussen Poll continues to ask that question, and indeed it has shown a shift to the big-government side in the wake of the economic crisis. In late September respondents supported smaller government by only 57 to 31 percent – or about 20 points more than Obama’s margin over McCain. The victorious Democrats should take note.

Worst News: The Loss of John Sununu

Plenty of big-government Republicans, starting with John McCain, lost their elections tonight, and libertarians won’t shed too many tears for them. But the voters of New Hampshire, which just might be the most libertarian state, dealt limited government a real blow by defeating John Sununu’s bid for reelection. Sununu is the youngest, probably the smartest, and surely the most libertarian member of the Senate. In 2002 he campaigned on Social Security private accounts. In office he has stood firmly for free markets and fiscal responsibility. He also voted twice against the Federal Marriage Amendment and helped to reform the Patriot Act.

P. J. O’Rourke, Cato’s Mencken Research Fellow who lives in New Hampshire, wrote in the Weekly Standard in June:

Senator Sununu could write his political philosophy on a small piece of paper: “I have a deep-seated belief that America is unique, strong, great because of a commitment to personal freedom–in our economic system and our politics. We are a free people who consented to be governed. Not vice-versa.” (Italics added for the sake of the multitudes in our government’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches who need to fill out that index card and keep it with them at all times. And if the multitudes are confused by “Not vice-versa” they may substitute, We aren’t a government that consents to people being free.)

“It’s important for politicians to understand,” Senator Sununu said, “that the Founders’ writings reflect that point of view. From Jefferson to Hamilton, freedom was the special ingredient in human prospects, moral prospects, political prospects. The argument was over what government mechanism would ensure common good and guarantee freedom. There was no argument about whether we were free people. In most parts of the world there never has been an appreciation for that perspective. Governments have evolved to provide greater freedom, to reduce the power of monarchies, to reduce absolute power.”

New Hampshire may be the most libertarian state in the country; its license plates read “Live Free or Die,” and it demands that its politicians “take the pledge” not to raise taxes. But in 2006, after six years of overspending, war, the marriage amendment and other affronts to limited government, both the state’s Republican congressmen lost, and both houses of the state legislature went Democratic for the first time since 1874. John Sununu was a good senator in sync with the sentiments of New Hampshire, but he couldn’t swim against the riptide of George W. Bush and the Washington Republicans. He will be missed.

Not Just the First African-American President

For two years now, everyone has talked about Barack Obama becoming the first black president, barely 40 years after the civil rights revolution. Obama himself has often said, “I  don’t look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates.”

But his achievement is even more striking than “first African-American president.” There are tens of millions of white Americans who are part of ethnic groups that have never produced a president. The fact is, all 42 of our presidents have been of British, Irish, or Germanic descent. We’ve never had a president of southern or eastern European ancestry. Despite the millions of Americans who came to the New World from France, Italy, Poland, Spain, Scandinavia, Russia, and other parts of Europe–not to mention Asia and the Arab world and Latin America–we’ve never had a president who traced his ancestry to those parts of the world. Indeed, it’s often been said that “we’ve never had a president whose name ended in a vowel” (except for a silent ”e” such as Coolidge, and with the exception of Kennedy), which is another way of saying “not of southern or eastern European heritage”).

As Philip Q. Yang put it in his book Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches, “There have been no presidents of southern and eastern European descent; and none of Jewish, African, Latino, Asian, or Indian descent.” We’ve had 37 presidents of British (English, Scottish, or Welsh) or Irish descent; three of Dutch descent (Van Buren and the two Roosevelts); and two of Swiss/German descent (Hoover and Eisenhower). Of course, these categories usually refer to the president’s paternal line; Reagan, for instance, was Irish on his father’s side but not on his mother’s. But that doesn’t change the overall picture.

In this light, Obama’s achievement is even more remarkable. He has achieved something that no American politician even of southern or eastern European heritage has managed. But I think we can assume that from now on there won’t be any perceived disadvantage to candidates of Italian, French, Asian, or other previous genealogies not previously seen in the White House. For that, congratulations to Barack Obama.