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December 1, 2007

"Mr. Rove’s Attempt at a Great Republican Society"

Joshua Green says there is a "contradiction at the heart of 'compassionate conservatism'":

A ‘Great Society’ Conservative, by Joshua Green, Commentary, NY Times: There is a paradox at the heart of Karl Rove’s tenure in the White House, and it is a key to understanding why he failed to remake American politics, despite ambitious plans to do so. ... Conservatives believe the Great Society programs that liberals pushed in the 1960s demonstrated that government engineering doesn’t work. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed, this critique goes, because liberals simply didn’t understand the limits of government’s power to transform culture. ...

[T]here can be little dispute that Mr. Rove pursued his vision of a new political order with the activist zeal of a 1960s Great Society liberal. From the outset of the Bush administration, Mr. Rove aimed to create a “permanent majority” for Republicans, just as Franklin Roosevelt did for Democrats in the 1930s, and as William McKinley and his campaign manager Mark Hanna — Mr. Rove’s hero — did for Republicans in the 1890s.

As Mr. Rove sought a political realignment that would create a durable Republican majority, he seized on government as his chief mechanism. He tried to realign American politics principally through the pursuit of major initiatives that he believed would reorient a majority of Americans to the Republican Party: establishing education standards; rewriting immigration laws; partially privatizing Social Security and Medicare; and allowing religious organizations to receive government financing.

The only thing that united these government actions was the likelihood that they would weaken political support for Democrats. Social Security privatization would create a generation of market-minded stockholders. Pork-barrel spending on religious organizations would keep evangelical Christians engaged in the political process — and pry loose some African-American voters by funneling money to black churches. No Child Left Behind would appeal to voters who traditionally looked to Democrats as the party of education. And generous immigration policies would persuade Hispanics to vote Republican.

Mr. Rove’s entire vision for Republican realignment was premised on the notion that he could command government to produce the specific effects that he desired. But as a conservative could have predicted, his proposed policies unleashed a series of failures and unintended consequences.

Mr. Rove had extraordinary power within the administration to shape domestic policy. But pushing through many of his programs proved difficult. On Social Security and immigration reform, Congress and the country weren’t prepared to embrace his vision. Like a 1960s liberal in love with the abstract merits of a guaranteed income, Mr. Rove misread the mood of the country and tried to do too much.

Mr. Rove married a liberal’s faith in the potential of government to a conservative’s contempt for its actual functioning. This was the contradiction at the heart of “compassionate conservatism,” and it helps explain the tension between the president’s fine words about, say, helping those hurt by Hurricane Katrina, and his actions.

Conservatives don’t have a lot to celebrate these days. Mr. Rove’s attempt at a Great Republican Society has left his party in tatters...

Of course, there is a bright side. If nothing else, Mr. Rove has strengthened the conservative critique of what happens when you try to engineer great societal changes through government policy. Perhaps conservatives can find some solace by telling themselves they were right all along.

The language is careful to talk about changing culture and society rather than the effectiveness of particular government programs, but it leaves the impression that this example helps to prove the general case about government effectiveness. While it's true that Rove and company were unable to push society where it did not want to go, I don't think it says much about the effectiveness of government programs generally.

Take the two main examples above, Social Security and immigration reform. On Social Security, try as they might, conservatives were unable to end or substantially alter the existing program. If the program was a failure, reform plans would not have faced such stiff opposition. On immigration reform, it's not as though a program was put into place and then failed, it never got past the proposed legislation stage. So it's hard to generalize too much about the effectiveness of government programs from that example.

But I think there is a lesson about government programs to be learned from this administration. As events like hurricane Katrina showed, who's running the programs matters, and it matters more than I thought. However, those instances don't prove government failure either, no more than the existence of an incompetent manager at a firm proves private sector failure. All it shows is that if you put incompetent people in charge of things, then bad things can happen.

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