Politics & Policy

Constituent Service

Newsflash: Bush is a politician.

President Bush has selected his policy agenda with an eye toward strengthening the Republican party and weakening the Democrats. Unlikely as it seems, that was front-page news in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Thomas Edsall and John Harris quote liberal activist John Podesta, who says that Bush is pushing for tort reform for political rather than economic reasons. The always interesting New Democrat Ed Kilgore, in a post about the article, echoes the point: “The extraordinary attention the GOPers are paying to so-called ‘tort reform’ . . . is a simple function of the amount of money trial lawyers contribute to Democrats, and the amount of money their enemies are beginning to contribute to Republicans. Similarly, the administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce public employee rights is no accident, and is driven less by ideology than by the amount of money public employee unions contribute to Democrats.” Kilgore concludes that “the Edsall-Harris piece implicitly demonstrates . . . that actually making conditions in the country better doesn’t seem to show up anywhere in the Bush-Rove priority list” (emphasis his).

Edsall and Harris are aware that the pursuit of partisan advantage is not unprecedented among presidents: “All presidents weigh the political implications of their agendas, and hope that policies that prove popular will strengthen a party’s claims on particular constituencies.” That is the entirety of their concession, and the following sentence diminishes its force: “What is notable about the Bush White House, some analysts believe, is the extent to which its agenda is crafted with an eye toward the long-term partisan implications.” So this president, supposedly, has a more politically-driven agenda than others have.

The Edsall-Harris article, some analysts believe, leaves out some crucial points. It ignores a Bush initiative that is hard to fit into the thesis: the Iraq war. Bush didn’t start it for crass political reasons (I’m going to ignore infantile theorizing to the contrary). He risked a lot more politically on an initiative he believed to be in the national interest than his predecessor ever did.

The fact that Bush had a predecessor is a bit of useful context that, some analysts believe, is missing from the Post article. We are not given a single example of a Democratic initiative that was either designed for partisan reasons or had predictable effects that favored Democratic constituencies. Was President Clinton’s proposal to hire more public-school teachers an attempt to expand the Democratic party’s base? Was the Democrats’ proposal for a patients’ bill of rights an attempt to create a new source of funding for the trial lawyers? Were his proposed changes to labor law a way to strengthen the unions? I don’t recall the Post ever asking those questions. Never mind that liberals openly defend what they call labor-law “reform” as a way of strengthening the unions.

Then there’s the Clintons’ health-care plan of 1993. Clinton aide Stanley Greenberg openly defended it as a means of winning the loyalty of the middle class for the Democratic party.

To be sure, Democrats believed that there were reasons for all of those policies besides their effects on various constituencies. Still, it is hard to believe that their likely partisan effects were irrelevant to their placement on the party’s priority list. And, of course, Bush believes his policies to be in the national interest too. Podesta’s comment creates a contrary impression by slicing the issue too thin. A reform of medical-liability laws, a settlement of asbestos cases, and efforts to rein in class-action suits may not in themselves amount to much of an economic agenda. But surely Bush believes that the costs of commercial litigation is a big problem for America, and that his proposed reforms represent the beginning of a solution to them. (I oppose both Bush’s medical-liability reform and the most recent version of the asbestos bill, but that doesn’t affect my conclusion here.)

Republicans have a lot of policy goals, as the Democrats do. Some of them are easier to achieve than others. Some of them, if achieved, would make it possible for them to achieve other goals. A liberalization of labor laws that weakens the unions might eventually make it possible to liberalize trade, too. Wouldn’t a rational party devise its list of priorities with these effects in mind? And wouldn’t a rational party give these effects even more weight when dealing with a situation of partisan parity and policy stalemate? If both parties have increasingly sought to gain advantage from policy changes, there’s your explanation.

Modern liberalism has a tropism toward increased public dependence on government. Liberal proposals will tend to expand government, thus making the public more dependent on government and the party of government. Market conservatism has the reverse tendency, which is hardly more sinister. So it is very often going to be possible to describe the policy agenda of the moment on either side as a means of seeking partisan advantage.

As it happens, I’m not convinced that Bush’s proposals, if implemented, would give the Republicans more than a momentary advantage. Personal accounts within Social Security may very well make the public more pro-market and less inclined to look to the government for help. But the parties might react by shifting their positions accordingly. The base of the Republican party would see that it could demand more and still hold on to power; the base of the Democratic party would see that it would have to ratchet down its demands. Parity would be quickly, perhaps instantaneously, restored. I suspect that modern politics is efficient that way. If Bush did lock in a Republican advantage, Democrats would have good reason to be concerned–but no good reason to complain of unfairness. They would simply have lost the normal political game for a time.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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