Cato Analysts Take a Skeptical Look at the Candidates

May/​June 2008 • Policy Report

When P. J. O’Rourke, H. L. Mencken research fellow at the Cato Institute, spoke at the 20th Annual Benefactor Summit on February 9, it didn’t take him long to settle into his comic groove. It being only a few days after Super Tuesday, he had plenty of source material.

“Rudy Giuliani’s lofty campaign promise is that there will be a tragedy every week.” “Everyone respects John McCain. He’s tough. He’s consistent. He’s wrong.” As for Mitt Romney, he “should go back into business.”

Characterizing Barack Obama as having the “Disney factor,” he said America seems to have forgotten he’s still only a politician. “Politicians are like the Seven Dwarves. They’re short — short on ethics, short on experience, and short on common sense,” he said to roars from Cato Sponsors. “But we keep thinking one of these dwarves is going to save our snow white butt.” Lamenting that Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd — “the three Democrats actually qualified to be president” — had exited the race, he expressed the hope that John Edwards (and his hair) and Hillary Clinton (and her husband) do the same.

P. J. O’Rourke is not alone among Cato scholars in having no horse in this race. Ed Crane, founder and president of the Cato Institute, doesn’t much care for John McCain’s saber‐​rattling, and reserves special scorn for his free‐​speech‐​restricting campaign finance regulations, as he pointed out most recently in a January Examiner interview. But the alternatives may be worse. In a Financial Times op‐​ed “Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon?” Crane asserted that Hillary Clinton fundamentally rejects the American liberal tradition. Instead of protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Clinton would give Americans “national goals” — and socialized healthcare.

Meanwhile Barack Obama, despite his billing, does not represent “change” either, says David Boaz, executive vice president at the Cato Institute. “When you strip away all the verbiage, what is left is a shorter version of Hillary Clinton’s speeches,” he said at a February 13 book launch party for The Politics of Freedom. Obama would provide a subsidy, a handout, a program, or a transfer to every identifiable interest group in society, said Boaz. For all the talk about rising above partisanship and transcending polarization, what Obama is really saying is that as president he — and not Hillary — would be able to “overcome America’s resistance to big government.” Meanwhile, Will Wilkinson, research fellow at the Cato Institute, had Obama pegged as far back as 2005. Writing in the American Spectator on a June 4, 2005, Obama commencement address at Knox College, Wilkinson praised Obama’s oratory, but said, when it comes to substance, he and his supporters must face the fact that “the New Deal … has not been new for 70 years now.”

Cato scholars are always looking for new ways to publicize their research, and campaign commentary represents a great opportunity to do just that. In a February 29 appearance on the Fox News Channel, Daniel T. Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies, defended NAFTA in the face of calls from Obama and Clinton to amend it. The decline in manufacturing long predated NAFTA, he asserted, and was caused by the American economy’s transition from heavy industry to an information‐​based service economy. “It’s a cruel illusion to say that if we go in and tinker with NAFTA that there will be some kind of industrial renaissance.” Over the past 12 months, Cato senior fellow Michael D. Tanner has appeared on the CBS Evening News, ABC News Now, CNN’s Glenn Beck, Reuters TV, and scores of radio programs to talk about the problems with government‐​imposed health insurance mandates and to remind viewers that, no matter who becomes president, Social Security’s pending insolvency must be addressed.

Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, is not content to critique any one candidate or policy platform. In The Cult of the Presidency, he takes on the entire office. Though American political culture is often deemed “cynical,” Healy says that by contrast the public is immersed in a romance with the imperial presidency — it is “pining for Camelot,” as he puts it. This love affair is not harmless, for when the public expects the president to solve national‐​scale problems, the president will usurp additional powers to meet that demand. The result is grand, unconstitutional, failed policies like No Child Left Behind — not to mention our entitlement legacy of Social Security and Medicare. A major part of Healy’s April‐​May book tour is to remind Americans that it wasn’t always this way. The Framers saw the president as a constitutionally constrained chief executive with an important, but limited job: to defend the country when attacked, check Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforce the law, and little else. Healy points out that the presidential office stood much the way the Founders envisioned as late as the last years of the 19th century.