Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Reality intrudes

Poliblogger Steven Taylor responded yesterday to my post on conservatism and the 2004 election. First he examines my argument with regard to divided government:

Chris makes an argument, that I have often heard, that the solution to the problem of insufficient fiscal conservatism is the return of divided government. However, I would note that in the twentieth century divided government has been the norm, and, likewise, deficits and ever-increasing spending has also been the norm, calling into question the idea that divided government results in curtailed spending. The only exception (at least in regards to deficits) was during part of the Clinton years, during which we did, in fact, have divided government. However, as I have argued before, the balanced budgets of those years were primarily a function of unexpected economic growth, not a tremendous feat of fiscal restraint the resulted from divided government. For that matter the Reagan era, one of divided government, is usually considered the hallmark of deficit politics.

Causality is difficult to prove here, but I don’t think that—necessarily—you can argue that the Clinton years were a fluke. Reagan was president with a Democratic House and a Senate that was sometimes under Republican and sometimes under Democratic control. The Democrats of the 1980s were hardly a model of fiscal responsibility—and coupled with Reagan’s fetish for supply-side economics, the two together created a giant deficit between them. As I stated in my earlier post, effective fiscal conservatism rests on control of the House and Senate—something that Reagan didn’t enjoy, but Clinton did. That Clinton also benefitted from a favorable economy that he had little control over doesn’t change the fact that Republicans in Congress were much more willing to say “no” when Clinton wanted to throw money at problems than they are today.

And I do think that in terms of national security one would see a rather substantially different world under a Kerry administration. That alone is sufficient reason to heed my prior advice. And do think that he is serious in his campaign rhetoric regarding foreign policy. Remember: this is the guy who voted against the first Gulf War even though Saddam has invaded Kuwait. I think that he is highly reticent to use force and does not have the temperament needed to fight the war on terror.

This is an argument I acknowledged, albeit somewhat glibly, in my post. But to a large extent I think a Democratic president is now stuck prosecuting the War on Terror forcefully, or he risks going down in history as a miserable failure the likes we haven’t seen since the late 1970s. Not that that’s much comfort if you think Kerry will get us all killed between now and January 2009, mind you. (I think the more likely scenario is that Kerry will simply fail to follow through with al-Qaeda and do the minumum necessary to protect the homeland, leaving us with a mess at the end of his term.)

[On domestic policy:] However, there would still be important differences. For example: the judgeship issue and I don’t just mean in regards to specific social conservative issue (although abortion is important to me), but just the general idea of having judges who at least make an effort to simply judge the law and let legislators legislate. I consider this to be rather significant.

I think the odds of either Kerry or Bush getting the nominees he wants on the bench are rapidly approaching zero at this point; however, Kerry or Bush might be able to accomplish a bit with recess appointments. The open question is whether or not the next president will dare make a recess appointment to the Supreme Court when Stevens keels over.

And a side note the “social conservative” issue: prostitution really isn’t that much of an issue for the DoJ, so that strikes me as a non-starter of an example. And in regards to the drug war (which I oppose on efficacy grounds, btw), a Democratic president is unlikely to function any differently than a Republican one on that one. From Nixon to the present the funding for the drug war has simply grown, and while Carter discussed support for legalizing marijuana, the basic approach to illegal drugs has been be pretty consistent across partisan lines. Indeed, the massive increase in funding to Colombia under “Plan Colombia” was under Clinton.

My example sucked because I actually meant to write “pornography.” Don’t mind me, my brain’s in deep freeze. But I suspect a Kerry administration would not prosecute either the War on Drugs or the War on Porn with the zeal that Ashcroft has shown. Of course, if you’re a SoCon that’s a bug, not a feature.

To be honest, I cannot conceive a situation arising in which the net policy desires of conservatives of any stripe would be furthered by a Kerry win, unless they occurred by sheer serendipity.

Serendipity works. I don’t think Bill Clinton particularly wanted to show fiscal restraint in the 1990s, but a funny thing happened as a result of his perpetual head-butting with Congress. If John Kerry had proposed No Child Left Behind, or the Medicare drugs bill, in the exact same form that Bush had, he’d have been laughed right out of Congress by the Republicans—and deservedly so. It may only be a marginal difference, but the difference between trying to give the president a record to run on and trying to deny the president something to take credit for may just be enough to encourage Congress to keep spending in check.

Now, if you’re someone who wants Roe and Goodridge to go away, this may not be enough to affect your vote. But if you’re someone who’s indifferent, or for that matter realistic, on social issues—let’s face it, Roe and Goodridge aren’t going away, because another two Scalias will never make it onto the Supreme Court—it’s something that might be worth considering. (On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that some people, including my esteemed co-blogger, who want more Breyers on the Court have made much the same argument. So your mileage may vary, as they say.)