Topic: Government and Politics

Today, In the Role of David Brooks, Mike Huckabee

A few weeks back, David Brooks was telling George Packer that philosophies of limited government were “politically unpopular and fundamentally un-American.” Now we have Mike Huckabee telling the Huffington Post the same thing:

The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says “look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it.” Well, that might be a quote pure economic conservative message, but it’s not an American message. It doesn’t fly. People aren’t going to buy that, because that’s not the way we are as a people. That’s not historic Republicanism. Historic Republicanism does not hate government; it’s just there to be as little of it as there can be. But they also recognize that government has to be paid for.

If you have a breakdown in the social structure of a community, it’s going to result in a more costly government … police on the streets, prison beds, court costs, alcohol abuse centers, domestic violence shelters, all are very expensive. What’s the answer to that? Cut them out? Well, the libertarians say “yes, we shouldn’t be funding that stuff.” But what you’ve done then is exacerbate a serious problem in your community. You can take the cops off the streets and just quit funding prison beds. Are your neighborhoods safer? Is it a better place to live? The net result is you have now a bigger problem than you had before.

First, there’s nothing “new” about libertarianism, although it appears someone’s just alerted Mike Huckabee to the phenomenon. Second, this business of the “un-Americanism” of libertarianism is ahistorical, although not particularly surprising coming from a Know Nothing demagogue like Mike Huckabee. Someday, advertising one’s own ignorance about the world won’t be considered a mark in one’s favor by conservatives. Until then, Mike Huckabee.

High Prices for Snickers? Feds Shouldn’t Point Fingers

Recently I blogged about the federal government investigating businesses for keeping the price of milk too high, even though the government’s own policies push up milk prices.

Government policies also seem to work at cross purposes with respect to chocolate. The Wall Street Journal reports that the price of a Snickers bar is up 6 percent over last year as a result of rising cocoa prices, and the government is looking for culprits. ”Chocolate makers are accused of colluding as far back as 2002. The U.S. Justice Department has inquired into their pricing practices….” For their part, chocolate makers are blaming high prices on speculation by hedge funds.

I don’t know why cocoa prices are high, but the other big input to chocolate is sugar. And we know that government sugar controls keep U.S. sugar prices about twice as high as world prices, which hurts consumers and has led to an exodus of sugar-using food manufacturers to Canada and Mexico.

In a report on the sugar industry in 2006, the Department of Commerce found that sugar represents 18 percent of the input costs of chocolate products, which indicates that the government’s high-price policy for sugar is taking a substantial bite out of the budgets of America’s chocoholics. 

Fiscal Responsibility, Bush Style

As we all know, if you just put the word “defense,” or “homeland” or “security” anywhere in the name of a government program, its fiscal impact is immediately zeroed out. But if this mystical transformation didn’t take place, President Bush’s fiscal legacy would be looking darker and darker each day. Noah Shachtman gives us a rundown:

The Pentagon’s internal watchdogs can’t keep up with the explosive growth in military spending. Which means $152 billion’s worth of contracts annually aren’t being reviewed for fraud, abuse and criminal interference by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, according to a newly-unearthed report to Congress. The result: “undetected or inadequately investigated criminal activity and significant financial loss,” as well as “personnel, facilities and assets [that] are more vulnerable to terrorist activities.”

Since fiscal year 2000, the military’s budget has essentially doubled, from less than $300 billion to more than $600 billion. Two wars have begun. But the number of criminal investigators and financial auditors at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DoD IG) has stayed more or less the same. So there are now “gaps in coverage in important areas, such as major weapon systems acquisition, health care fraud, product substitution, and Defense intelligence agencies,” according to the report, obtained by the Project on Government Oversight.

[…]

The DOD IG’s office has certainly stayed busy. In just the last few months, the DOD IG caught a Philippine corporation bilking $100 million from the military health care system; nabbed a trio trying to bribe their way into drinking water contracts for troops; busted an Air Force general who tried to steer a $50 million deal to his buddies; and launched investigations into the Pentagon’s propaganda projects and the youthful arms-dealer who sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of dud ammunition to the government.

Shachtman then observes: “The question is: How much more could they have done, with a bigger staff?” It’s almost like you sink a half a trillion dollars a year into one massive bureaucracy and it’s hard to keep track of it all. President McCain’s going to have to find a lot of earmarks to offset this sort of thing.

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.