May 05, 2005

Jacob Weisberg, Off-Message

Slate's editor apparently never got the memo that Republicans are motivated by ideology. They are extreme, except when they are very extreme. They are to be referred to in a tone of voice suggestive of a timid housewife discovering a mouse in her pantry (Eek! Eek! The Radical Right! Theocrats! Eek! American Taliban! Neoquasifascistnazis! Eek!).

It's not as if I'm arguing with Weisberg's Big Idea (I'm not being snide, it's the name of the Slate feature he's writing for) that interest group conservatism has grown like kudzu in the summertime since Republicans got control of Congress. I do think he misses a few important details, such as

* A number of Congressional Republicans are R-squareds, Recent Republicans produced by the exodus of southern white voters from the Democratic Party since the early 1970s. Conservative these folks are in many of their social views, but they aren't anti-spenders any more than their Democratic predecessors were 20 and 30 years ago. They're keen on using the tax code to deliver for favored interests and constituents, too, much as Southern Democrats like Russell Long and Lloyd Bentsen were.

* The focus of interest group conservatism has been on the budget and the tax code until fairly recently. That's where the money is; that's where interest groups get paid off. There is some action, it is true, on other kinds of legislation. Except for the abortion issue, though, most of this has a high ratio of symbolism to substance: school prayer and gay marriage amendments that everyone knows have no chance of becoming part of the Constitution, symbolic repeal of the symbolic assault weapons ban and so forth. Weisberg gets distracted by a lot of this symbolic stuff. So the FCC is enforcing regulations against foul language on public airwaves; big deal. If the agency ignored its regulations Weisberg wouldn't be accusing it of doing the bidding of Howard Stern.

There is, of course, the judiciary. Interest groups on both sides have taken an increasing (and by now occasionally all-consuming) interest in judicial nominations. For conservative groups, waging rhetorical battles against liberal activist judges to energize the base and promote fundraising comes first, though some of them have shown an interest in legislating from the bench on behalf of their views. For liberal groups the priorities are reversed; even liberal politicians sympathetic to abortion rights and hostile to state morals laws can't get away with criticizing the legal reasoning behind, say, Roe or Lawrence, two of the more egregious acts of judicial usurpation in recent history. They couldn't even get away with saying the Massachusetts Supreme Court had no business deciding that a definition of marriage in place for centuries suddenly violated that state's constitution.

* This leads to the last point Weisberg missed: interest-group liberalism hasn't gone anywhere. Those Democratic Presidential candidates in Iowa last year competing with one another to repeat interest group talking points about everything from education to race didn't think interest-group liberalism had declined. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee today certainly don't. Why can so few Democrats in politics demonstrate mastery of foreign policy and national security issues? Because none of their "groups" care about any of them, except for the ones who care about Israel, neither do they.

Weisberg is just spinning here, on behalf of a Clinton administration that adapted first to low approval ratings and later to a Republican Congress, but otherwise did little to break "the groups'" hold on the Democratic Party. I'll grant that Clinton had opportunities to do this, but after he made it through his reelection he had, ahem, other priorities, and his influence faded.

I should also say something about John McCain. Like a lot of leftish journalists, Weisberg adores McCain. He thinks the Arizona Senator can be a counterweight to interest-group conservatives, or could be if he weren't so disliked by the Republican establishment. I'd like to believe this, and McCain may believe it, but it's still wrong. John McCain is a guy I like and admire, who ran for President in 2000 like a man playing out the last act of his public life, only to find the lights still on and the crowds still cheering at the end. He will be 69 this year; his legislative agenda is all odds and ends apart from campaign finance and what he does for Arizona. He has been and remains weakly staffed for someone seeking to put together a reform Republican platform, and this is unlikely to change. He's a voice, but not a force.

What Weisberg is right about is that, as he says, "...the entire enterprise of running Washington as a special-interest spoils system breeds a bloated, ineffective government." People will put up with this kind of government in good times, but eventually it will breed discontent and cynicism directed at the party in power.

The central political problem in America today is that the business of government has been overwhelmed by the business of getting elected. It's why interest-group conservatism, and liberalism, have burst their banks and inundated the political landscape. Eventually, though, there is always a high political price to be paid for bad, corrupt, feckless government -- sometimes not exacted from the politicians most responsible or in a timely manner, but nonetheless certain. Because they now control both the White House and the Congress the Republicans are running up the biggest tab.

Posted by at May 5, 2005 03:59 PM | TrackBack (4)

Thanks for an insightful post. I agree with just about everything you said, but would like to add a few comments about McCain. You may be right that health issues will keep him from running, but he still has a lot of influence if he chooses to lay his hands on an heir (Hagel?) -- there is still a wide open space in American politics for someone to run up the middle; it's been there at least since Perot. Swartzenegger is blocked, but somewhere someone is going to harness this bloc and I think it is still more likely to be on the Republican side than, say, a new Gephardt breaking the hammerlock of the Moore-ons on the Dem side.

Posted by: wayne at May 6, 2005 04:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Schwartzeneger (Ahnuld, whatever) tried to make a series of bold moves against the interest groups in California and is being killed. McCain has actually empowered the interest groups through his campaign finance "reform". Clinton did take on the groups in a lot of areas, especially welfare reform, and don't forget he was an early leader of the NCLB effort as governor of Arkansas. The problem with the GOP is that Bush is a lame duck who never had the stomach to take on Congress. It is time for both parties to look to their governors. My favorite for now is Bredeson of TN.

Posted by: jimbo at May 8, 2005 09:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yet another fine post.

I have a couple of suggestions for the special interest and rent-seeking issue that I always like to bring up:

1) Move the House away from geographical representation and towards ideological representation, using nation-wide Proportional Representation (PR). No more districts to bring home the bacon to (and this has the bonus of fixing the gerrymandering problem and of providing representatation to minorities and libertarians). I think the stability issues of multi-party democracies can be addressed by using Condorcet as a supplement to PR to provide center-weighting. I think the fact that we have a presidential system instead of parliamentary should also help.

2) Move the Senate back to being indirectly appointed by state governments, and change its focus to be solely the prevention of federal encroachment upon states rights, much like the German Bundestag.

3) Clean Money, Clean Elections. Basically, voluntary public campaign financing (i.e. candidates can choose between private financing or public financing, but not both). This should avoid the free speech complications of most campaign-finance efforts.

Posted by: fling93 at May 10, 2005 12:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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