SYNOPSIS: Bush is a conservative ideologue, but, hey, he'll sacrifice those principles in order to curry political favor with a special interest group
Some months ago an academic colleague — a man with strong Democratic connections — urged me to write a couple of columns praising the Bush administration. "What should I praise?" I asked.
There was a long pause — funny, isn't it, how "balance" becomes a goal in itself? — but eventually he came up with something: "How about its commitment to free trade?"
Ahem. In fact, George W. Bush has turned out to be quite protectionist. The steel tariff and the farm bill attracted the most attention, but they are part of a broader picture that includes the punitive (and almost completely unjustified) tariff on Canadian softwood lumber and the revocation of Caribbean trade privileges. When it comes to free trade, the Bush administration is all for it — unless there is some political cost, however small, to honoring its alleged principles.
Which brings me to the story that has Washington's political groupies twittering: that Esquire article in which the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, frets that with the moderating influence of Karen Hughes gone, the hard-liner Karl Rove will run the show. If the past 18 months have been what policy looks like with Mr. Rove only partly in control, one shudders to think what comes next.
For the most distinctive feature of Mr. Rove's modus operandi is not his conservatism; it's his view that the administration should do whatever gives it a political advantage. This includes, of course, exploiting the war on terrorism — something Mr. Rove has actually boasted about. But it also includes coddling special interests.
One of Bill Clinton's underappreciated virtues was his considerable idealism when it came to economic policy. The Berkeley economist Brad DeLong lauded Mr. Clinton's "record of being willing to take major political risks in order to do what he thinks is right for the country as far as international economic policy is concerned." What he had in mind was the way Mr. Clinton went out on a limb, defying the polls and reaching across party lines, to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and the even bigger risks he took to rescue Mexico from its financial crisis in 1995. Like Mr. DeLong, I know some of the key players in both of those decisions, and I'm sure that they were taken on the merits: the Clintonites really, truly believed they were doing the right thing.
That scrupulousness continued to the end. If Bill Clinton had given the steel industry the tariffs it wanted, Al Gore would probably be living in the White House. But administration officials actually worried about the consequences — for the nation, and for the world economy — of giving in to special interests.
Mr. Rove's administration has no use for such niceties. The deals don't stop with trade and farm subsidies. As analysts at the Cato Institute point out, the Bush-Cheney energy plan may have been conservative in the sense that it was anti-environmentalist, but otherwise it was stuffed full of things free-marketeers are supposed to abhor: expanded government power to seize private land (for transmission lines), large tax incentives for energy sources that don't pay their way at market prices (nuclear power, in particular). The energy plan wasn't about principles; it was about payback.
And if the administration won't take a stand on principle, who will? I was particularly struck by a story in the newspaper The Hill titled "Unions taking fresh look at G.O.P." It quoted the U.A.W. spokesman saying his union was "looking beyond party labels" to where politicians stand "on certain issues." In other words, his union will go with whoever caters to its special interests.
To some extent we've been here before. Paula Stern, the former head of the International Trade Commission, matter-of-factly describes Ronald Reagan as "the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover," and says that he "legitimized efforts by powerful industries to use political muscle — not necessarily economic merit or legal criteria" to get what they wanted. So in a way Mr. Bush is following in Mr. Reagan's footsteps.
But it seems to me that it's worse this time — that we are witnessing a race to the bottom in interest-driven politics, taking us to depths not seen since before the New Deal. And if that Esquire story is to be believed, it's about to get even worse. Smoot-Hawley, anyone?
Originally published in The New York Times, 6.11.02