Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Columnists and rats first!

Atrios noted that George Will is unhappy with George. Seems to be a lot of that going around. .

Is compassionate conservatism (a) a genuine governing philosophy or (b) merely a clever sound bite?

Five years later, we know that the answer is (b).
Did it really take five years to figure this out? Most voters knew that by November of 2000.

I'm less in disagreement with Mr. Samuelson's political stance (it is not mine), than bewildered: how do people like this get a public forum?

First, he defines "compassionate conservatism" in a way that can only be described as entirely too generous to the concept, a concept never defined by Bush, and therefore a tabula rasa upon which people like Mr. Samuelson were expected to paint their own portrait of paradise. And he used every color on his palette:

As a governing philosophy, it suggested that Bush could pursue the goals of modern liberalism, helping the poor and promoting social justice, without forsaking the values of modern conservatism -- including individual responsibility and disciplined government. There was always an ambiguity about this brilliant phrase.
And that very ambiguity should have been a clue. But the whole analysis trades in cliche and shallow understanding. Consider:

In practice, Bush has taken the most self-serving aspect of modern liberalism (its instinct to buy public support with massive government handouts) and fused it with the most self-serving aspect of modern conservatism (its instinct to buy support with massive tax cuts).
"Massive government handouts" is not to be equated with money wisely spent on armaments, or for Washington bureaucracy, or for any other purpose to which government money is put. No, liberals don't spend money to help the economy, as FDR did, nor to equalize rights and opportunities, as LBJ did. They do it only to buy support. Support for what? More government handouts, apparently.

And so the yin and yang of Washington is established: liberals spend money, conservatives cut taxes. What could be simpler than that? Would that reality were so elementary.

And then:

To be fair, Bush has made some legitimate efforts to define compassionate conservatism. The No Child Left Behind Act is one. It tries, through standardized tests and achievement benchmarks, to make schools, teachers, principals and students more responsible for their own performance. The goals are difficult to achieve for many reasons: the fact that public K-12 education is mostly a state and local responsibility; the reality that learning depends on many factors beyond government control (family, innate ability, popular culture); the difficulty in crafting mass standards that are fair and appropriate for all students. Still, the experiment is worth undertaking.
And might have been more worth undertaking if the President had ever tried to fund the thing. Conservatives used to call such measures "unfunded mandates." Apparently Mr. Samuelson would call them 'massive government handouts" (maybe we should shorten that to "MGH").

Even a blind hog finds an acorn, however, and after five years, and presumably Hurricane Katrina and the quagmire that Iraq has clearly become, even Mr. Samuelson has lost his blinders:

"Compassion" for Bush has consisted mostly of distributing new benefits to large constituencies in the hope of purchasing their gratitude and support. He persuaded the Republican Congress (albeit with vigorous arm-twisting) to enact a Medicare drug benefit, the biggest new social program since the Great Society. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $851 billion from 2005 to 2015. Bush proposed not a penny of taxes to cover these immense outlays, which will continue rising after 2015. Next, he advocated "individual investment accounts" for Social Security -- a program designed to win the allegiance of younger voters by assuring them of future Social Security benefits. From 2009 to 2015, the cost could reach nearly $1 trillion, says the CBO. Bush proposed no tax increases for that either.
Mr. Bush did much the same thing in Texas. But, for the Beltway crowd, like Marlowe's Jew of Malta, that was in another country and besides, the wench is dead. Five years later, he finally realizes that Mr. Bush is the same person as the governor of that far-away place.

The rest of Mr. Samuelson's reasoning I simply consider specious, on much the same grounds as the surprise he know finds at having taken a snake to his bosom, and finding that rather than displaying gratitude, it has sunk its fangs into his chest.

Spend more, tax less. That's a brazen political strategy, not a serious governing philosophy.
No sh*t, Sherlock.

A flimsy rationalization is that the resulting budget deficits don't immediately harm the economy. This is true. At present levels, the deficits are not as harmful as many critics contend. But note the paradox of using this as an excuse for jettisoning budget discipline.
I think several people noted it, as early as the first term. Where were you then?

Bush has significantly raised present and future federal spending -- especially the exploding cost when baby boomers retire.
No, really? Who knew?

Now, with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even Republican members of Congress say that borrowing should not pay for all the added costs. The White House agrees but scorns one obvious step, repealing the Medicare drug benefit (projected 2006-08 spending: $151 billion), that would make a big difference.
Because, after all, that's an MGH we can certainly do without. But here's the rub:

The outlook is for tokenism. Just what conservative values Bush's approach mbodies is unclear. He has not tried to purge government of ineffective or unneeded programs. He has not laid a foundation for permanent tax reductions. He has not been straightforward with the public. He has not shown a true regard for the future. He has mostly been expedient or, more pointedly, cynical.
The bottom line: even party-line conservatives are starting to abandon ship.

Turn out the lights, George. The party's over.

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