This is not a review of P. J. O’Rourke’s delightful 1987 book. Instead, I’ll explain some Bush administration pathologies. Here’s the sorry context of these failures.
In 1964, folks of classical liberal (libertarian) and politically conservative persuasions were attracted to the Republican presidential campaign of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. While he received only 42 electoral votes, his ideas won when reconsidered 16 years later.
Goldwater was precociously libertarian. He supported strong national defense and individual choice. He challenged the efficiency, efficacy, and ethical foundations of big government. Republicans who claim these principles still guide the party are either willfully ignorant or deceptive.
The Reagan administration attracted scores of leading, highly principled and motivated intellectuals. They included top scholars from the very best and most prestigious institutions, many of whom I know, like, and trust. They understood political economy and problems inherent to bureaucracy and political opportunism. They believed in limited government and personal responsibility. The market process -- not politicians, bureaucrats, or lobbyists -- should direct the economy. These folks provided intellectual ballast and vision. They were extremely smart, tough, and driven to help America achieve its ideals.
Where are they now? Many are in top positions -- but alas not in the Bush administration. It has no place for idealistic people, for it is not driven by principles or data but rather by constituent interests and professed loyalty to one person, George W. This is political pathology in practice.
Regrettably, few welfare-enhancing cuts were made under President Reagan. Fortunately, access to the trough of plunder was well-monitored and budget muggers scorned. For example, the 1982 highway bill contained only 10 earmarks for clients.
In contrast, Republican pork addiction is now so strong that the last highway bill contained 6,376 earmarked projects. This includes nearly half a billion dollars for the misnamed Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.” It’s no accident the bridge will provide access to lands owned by powerful Republicans.
Republicans whose party allegiance trumps ethics claim this simplistic defense: Democrats do it too. Yes, they surely do. However the Democrats proudly announce their mission is to use government to transfer resources. And the Dems claim to focus largess on those who belong to Sam’s Club, not the Country Club.
With a few admirable exceptions, GOP legislators shower other peoples’ money on their constituents to buy reelection. Here’s a common campaign boast: “With my seat on the powerful XYZ Committee, I have brought over $1 billion in federal funds to our state since you elected me to office.” These Republican politicians often claim to “champion a fiscally conservative government and [be] a strong voice for lower taxes.” I found these conflicting statements in the same paragraph on a Congressional web site.
No intelligent, ethically responsible person respects hypocrites. That’s why Republicans will pay a heavy political price for graft and pervasive K Street corruption. Abramoff’s pay-offs to key Republicans epitomize the Party’s problem. It’s no accident that DC boasts over 30,000 registered lobbyists. They go to DC for the same reasons Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is. (As the National Review notes: “Washington makes obscure decisions that enrich small groups of people.”) Unfortunately, the Republican Party no longer has a cadre of ethically sensitive policy analysts to admonish those who manipulate power and disadvantage others to benefit clients.
While 200-plus members of Congress took Abramoff’s money, this really is a Republican scandal. Abramoff seduced important Republican congressmen, their top aides, and even a few conservative activists. These scandals show Washington’s engine of plunder with Republicans manipulating the controls.
This is atrocious for many reasons, but here are two. First, Republican politicians’ hypocrisy betrays professed principles. Second, their actions benefit the most venal, opportunistic, and well off. David Brooks of the New York Times nailed it: “When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it’s a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.”
Yes, Congressional decisions increasingly allocate wealth and preferential opportunities. As a direct result, we find a Gresham’s Law of political ethics: the most unprincipled folks thrive while the more ethical find it hard to survive.
Republican commitments to limited government were eroded by the opportunity to transfer wealth to clients and constituencies. It’s that simple -- and that sordid.